Local police officers with more mental health training will soon be hitting the streets and responding to those in crisis thanks to a new professional education program. The Mental Health Peace Officer Program offers a 40-hour, week-long course which trains local police and deputies how to communicate with and assist those who are suffering from major mental health, anxiety and personality disorders.

The program has been several years in the making and is a joint venture between the Texoma Community Center and the Behavior Health Leadership Team, which is comprised of 35 area organizations and service providers.

“It’s really important for people in our community to have access to services,” TCC Director of Forensic Services Whitney Redden said Tuesday. “We know that if there’s nowhere else for people with mental health disorders to go, they end up in the hospital or jail. So, if we create the ability to collaborate at a high level and we make sure that we’re actually getting people connected to services, then that keeps a lot of folks out of the hospital or jail when they’re there unnecessarily.”

Through two awarded grants totaling $140,00, the program will fund roughly a year and a half of service from 16 trained officers. Participating officers will respond to mental health-related calls to ensure safety for all involved including those experiencing a crisis.

They will work alongside TCC’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team.

“They’re putting themselves out there in what can be high-risk, volatile situations,” Grayson County Assistant District Attorney Brett Smith said. “I think having these mental health trained peace officers can provide a level of deescalation and also provides added safety for those folks with TCC.”

Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt said the response of trained officers will also free up public safety resources for other calls.

“One focus of this program is to use these folks, the mental health peace officers, to augment the on-duty staff, so that they don’t have to stay at that call for three or four hours or depending on how long it takes,” Watt said.

GCSO Investigator Shane Rodriguez undertook the training and said he and other participating officer know their role is not to diagnose or treat those in crisis, but to be a stabilizing presence and connect them to the appropriate care and assistance that they need.

“I’d say, in most cases, it’s actually not much different,” Rodriguez said of mental health-related calls. “You still have to show patience and you still have to try and help resolve the issue someone’s having.”

Redden said with 47 percent of inmates in the Grayson County Jail and 50 percent of Americans nationwide suffering from some sort of mental health disorder, the issue is widespread. Still, Redden said certain stigmas and misunderstandings persist.

“A lot of people just don’t realize that these disorders can be treated, and things can get better,” Redden said. “Even the most severe conditions can be treated and managed in a way where people can have a successful and healthy life.”

To date, the program has provided training for more than 25 officers of the Sherman Police Department and the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office. Organizers said they look forward to including other departments and have already begun looking into funding options for the program, 18-24 months down the road.

Drew Smith is the crime and emergency reporter for the Herald Democrat. Contact him at asmith@heralddemocrat.com.