NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The New Orleans Police Department is on its way to changing the method it uses to deal with the mentally ill.
In the past, officers were required to wait for a special team, but not anymore.
"NOPD is responding to 17 mental health calls per day," said Crisis Intervention Coordinator Cecile Tebo.
Any one of those confrontations could result in injury or worse, but now as part of the consent decree the department has graduated 30 more officers trained in de-escalating often tense face-offs. A graduation ceremony was held Tuesday. Now one in five officers are equipped to make a difference when dealing with those in mental distress.
"We encounter them on the street, and you can tell they need to go somewhere. Where they're at isn't working," said officer, and graduate Ron Howard.
Previously the NOPD had a crisis intervention team that would go in with officers to deal with confrontations with the mentally ill - something that occurs on average 6,000 times each year.
"This is a tremendous response. Our mentally ill are having more encounters with police than they are with psychiatrists and case workers," said Tebo.
The statistics are startling. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, across the country there are six million people who suffer from bipolar disease, two million schizophrenics and 16 million suffering from major depression.
"That's over 60 million living with mental illness, more than heart disease and breast cancer combined," said Lisa Romback, director of the New Orleans chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness.
Officer Howard clutched his daughter, Addison, as he received his diploma after completing the voluntary 40-hour course.
"If we all had the training, it would make us much better," he said.
Howard said not only is the program helping him on the streets, it's also helping him at home.
"You learn more patience," he said.
The NOPD is now spreading the crisis intervention officers across the districts. They said since they implemented the new program, there have been no injuries to citizens in distress or officers.