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ALEA first in country to receive sensory training

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Alabama law officers are being trained to do more than snap on handcuffs. The state’s Law Enforcement Agency is leading the nation on educating officers on dealing with people with sensory disabilities.

ALEA is the first state police department in the U.S. to have all its officers certified in sensory-inclusive practices, and other agencies are implementing similar practices.

Corporal Jeremey Burkett is with The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. He recently went through training on handling situations that involve someone with sensory needs. That list includes PTSD, autism and dementia.

“It makes you aware of things in retrospect upon situations that you've ran into that you just really weren’t aware of,” Burkett said. “It kind of gives you, as we say, another tool in the toolbox. And makes you aware of situations that you’ve probably already dealt with in the past and were just unaware of.”

The training to ALEA was provided for free by KultureCity, a Birmingham-based non-profit organization focused on helping communities become more accepting and inclusive for people with invisible disabilities.

“And the other thing is, not only does it do that in the training, but they also actually provide us with these bags,” Burkett said. “So, every arresting officer law enforcement personnel that’s been certified, Culture City sends you a bag. So, they actually give you tangible resources that officer can use.”

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ALEA isn’t the only law enforcement agency that’s offering sensory training to officers when it comes to invisible disabilities.

“We’ve actually been training in that area since at least 2012. That's when I became kind of the training coordinator for our mental health issues here at TPD,” said Lt. Craig Parker, the Commander of the Behavioral Health Unit at the Tuscaloosa Police Department.

“We've been offering an eight-hour training that everyone in the department actually participated in 2012, and then every incoming class of recruits that we hire is required to go through that 8-hour training class as well,” Parker said. “To go along with that, we've begun offering crisis intervention team training, which is a 40-hour training block to our officers.”

Parker said that training covers topics like communication skills and recognizing when someone has a mental illness.

“We also touch on substance abuse issues, the de-escalation tactics, you know, as far as body language, distance things along those lines,” Parker said, “kind of your nonverbal communication cues. And we also go into to further communication skills. It’s absolutely vital for us to have this training with officers. We’re relied upon a lot of the time as being first responders to persons experiencing a mental health crisis.”

The University of Alabama’s Police Department is also working on this mental health training. Officer Hunter Christian said UAPD is developing what’s called a crisis intervention team.

“We've trained six officers that are specifically designed and equipped to reply or respond to situations with where people are in crisis mentally,” Christian said. “So, they’re officers, but they've received additional training to assist with them when they arrive and seem to be able to work their way through a mental distressed individual and recognize that immediately.”

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Christian is trained as a mental health officer. He said the tactics he’s learned are vital when responding to mental health situations.

“Our biggest weapons on a mental call is our words. Being able to talk someone through a situation, talk them into an ambulance, talk them back from wanting to hurt themselves from the edge of the road,” Christian said.

He said being a mental health officer is a lot like being a negotiator through a crisis event. Christian said officers often see people on the worst days of their life, and they just want to help.

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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