Police officers regularly encounter mental health problems in their line of work, as mental illness correlates strongly with social ills from homelessness to substance abuse. But few officers are certified to recognize and respond to signs of mental illness.   

This week, peace officers from throughout West-Central Texas are taking a course that addresses just that. The mental health peace officer training course, running this week at Howard Payne University, involves 13 officers from seven different agencies who are working towards becoming licensed mental health peace officers.   

The officers will complete 40 hours of relevant coursework during the week, all designed to help them respond properly to mental health crises. On Wednesday, Judge Jim Cavanaugh of Brown County’s fourth precinct spoke to the course attendees about his years of experience dealing with mental health problems in the FBI.   

In an afternoon presentation in HPU’s Mabee University Center, Cavanaugh discussed how he quickly diagnosed the mental state of hostage-takers and made tactical recommendations to the FBI. He explained that a two-man team, one talking to the hostage-taker and the other listening, would work together to reach a conclusion. “We’re both comparing notes with each other — what type of person we’re dealing with, what’s the personality and what’s the physical circumstances going on,” Cavanaugh said.   

Dr. Paul Lilly is a criminal justice professor at HPU, and also serves as its chief of police. Lilly said the rare mental health course is being taught in conjunction with the West Central Texas Law Enforcement Academy. “It teaches [officers] how to recognize the different psychoses and other issues that they’ll encounter,” Lilly said, “and how to better communicate with people who are suffering from those disabilities. Some of them are permanent disabilities, and some of them are very temporary. It teaches them how to recognize those, and they’ve learned all the different resources that are available to get these people the assistance they need.”   

Lilly said the Center for Life Resources, Child Protective Services, Adult Protective Services, Dr. Danny Brunette-Lopez and the Family Services Center are all teaching program courses this week. “The key is, when these officers leave here they’ll be able to recognize these certain symptoms and know exactly what resources are available to assist that person.”   

Cavanaugh said peace officers are often the “first line” in dealing with mental health-related incidents. “They’re going to have to interact,” he said, “and if they have any reasonable idea what they’re confronting, they can do an appropriate response — not overreact, not under-react.”   

Lilly said ideally, every department should have a trained mental health officer on staff.   

The mental health peace officer training course will conclude on Friday with an exam. Attending officers represent the Taylor, Stephens and Brown County sheriff’s offices, the Eastland, Brownwood and Early police departments and the Howard Payne DPS.