Police over time have increasingly become the default first responders for people in mental health crisis, yet many don’t have the tools to handle that job effectively.

As calls for reform in policing echo across the country, Maine should begin that difficult process by making sure that every officer is equipped to deal with such crises, and bring them to a safe conclusion.

Crisis intervention training has been offered free by the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, for the last two decades.

The training has given officers the skills they need to make interactions with people in mental health crisis more safe. It helps them recognize the signs of mental illness, and stresses that police should have a supportive role in such interactions. The goal should be to reduce trauma on the subject and connect them to the proper services.

And many police departments, particularly the larger ones, have embraced it, working to get as many officers through the training as possible.

But many officers still answer calls related to mental health without it.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees, which sets minimum standards for police departments across the state, took a step in the right direction, releasing last week updated standards that require officers to attempt to de-escalate confrontations “when feasible.”

That’s long overdue. But it’s not enough.

The state should mandate crisis intervention training for each officer. NAMI has suggested a certification along with ongoing requirements that force officers to keep their skills sharp.

The training is free through a grant, and the Legislature could dedicate funds to help departments fill shifts when officers are taking it, one hurdle that has been identified.

Some departments have already found a way. The South Portland Police Department and the Waldo County Jail are among those that put all officers through crisis intervention training.

Police departments cannot send officers into the field without proper training in how to use their service weapon, even if most will never fire it.

Yet officers frequently face people in the midst of a mental health emergency without knowing the right way to handle it.

Whenever possible, mental health professionals should take the lead in such situations, and there is room for a discussion over whether more police funding should be diverted to mental health support services. Certainly a more robust mental health system would prevent people from falling into crisis altogether.

But interactions between police and people in crisis are inevitable. Officers need to understand mental illness, how it affects such confrontations, and how to safely bring them to conclusion.

For a police officer in this day and age, those skills are not extra – they are basic tools of the trade. If interactions with people in mental health crisis is a universal part of policing, than police training in the matter should be as well.

Comments are not available on this story.