CASE SENSITIVE: Sergeant Dan Wojcik and Lt. Kimberly Stratman have been through the program to help deal with the mentally ill.
photography by Jeremy Sharp
It goes against everything a police officer is traditionally trained to do: when presented with an angry, perhaps violent, person, speak quietly instead of with authority, engage in conversation instead of commands. These are the rules for the Dallas Police Department under its groundbreaking program, this month celebrating its one-year anniversary, training officers to deal with mental illness as they encounter it on the street.

“One of the most common statements we get is from the guys who’ve been around the longest,” says Senior Corporal Herb Cotner, who is in charge of the training. “They say, ‘We should’ve received this level of training a long time ago.’”

The training is a 40-hour course in conjunction with Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. It teaches cops to spot the signs of mental illness. Talking to oneself. Hearing a voice that isn’t there. Extreme agitation. The psychosis, even if it is drug induced, is treated the same: instead of a trip to the jail, a trip to Parkland Hospital or Green Oaks mental health facility. Cotner hopes to have instructed 800 officers, more than one-fourth the total force, by the end of the year. One day, every officer will have completed training.

Statistics for the number of people hospitalized rather than imprisoned aren’t yet available. But Tim Simmons, president of Mental Health America of Greater Dallas, says it’s refreshing to deal with a police department that accepts his core belief. “People with mental illness shouldn’t be put in prison for their illness,” he says.