"We're pretty stubborn and set in our ways, and we need to change that."

New LEAP speaker and Georgia police officer Captain Donnie James ensures his department properly responds to mental health crises. In this interview, he talks about crisis response protocol, how his department collaborates with local support services, and the importance of cross-disciplinary training in police academies. Originally from a small town in South Georgia, Capt. James left after high school to join the military. After 8 years in the military, he ended up in Chicago, where he was a police officer for a few years. He came home to Georgia to raise his son and continued his policing career in the Atlanta area.

*The views expressed in this interview are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his department.*

Mikayla Hellwich: How would you describe DeKalb County?

Capt. James: It’s part of the Atlanta Metro area – about 280 square miles, covering the whole east side. It’s very diverse. You have all cultures and events occurring around you in affluent neighborhoods and impoverished neighborhoods. For a police officer, you can do any kind of police work. You can learn to fly helicopters, work with juveniles, or you can work gang units gathering intel.

We also offer outstanding academics for ongoing education. We often have folks who are interested in law enforcement or are returning home from the military who are looking for more education and opportunities. Officers in my department take great pride in our agency. Ours is a great department to work for.

Policing often focuses on punishment rather than the root causes of crime. What are some of the main causes of crime in DeKalb County?

One of the root causes of reported crime is related to community relations. The relationships we have with our community are much better than you find in other communities.

Narcotics is somewhat of an issue. We do have gangs in our community as well. There's a large portion of single-parent households and not necessarily a lot of resources in certain areas of the county where the juveniles or teenagers feel as if there are things they can do for recreation. We are now in the process of working more with the community members and activists in different parts of the county to be able to offer resources that will prevent would-be juvenile offenders from joining the gangs. That's a very hard ball to balance at times, and probably one of the largest things we deal with as well is the recidivism of adults. When they come out, they return to the same neighborhoods [and the same situations that got them in trouble in the first place].

Can you describe the process for how officers in DeKalb County respond to someone dealing with a mental health crisis?

DeKalb County Police is a unique, hybrid organization when it comes to dealing with crisis intervention calls or behavioral health responses. We have a healthcare professional who partners with us who actually rides in the police car with law enforcement officers when they respond to mental health crisis calls throughout the shift.

There’s also a follow-up process. The healthcare professional will make sure the family has the support they need and resources from either the local or state government to help their loved one. We have found it to be very beneficial. This also helps the healthcare professionals because it helps to see what kind of home or environment this person is coming from. Then they can attack it two-fold. There is an educational piece and an intervention piece. This partnership is great for the officers because it’s another tool that we can utilize versus having the officer, who may be unsure of how to handle a personal crisis, let it turn into a tragic situation. We’ve been doing this since the ‘80s, but we need more healthcare professionals so we can grow this program.

Does any specific incident come to mind – a good example of how your department responds to these types of crises?

Recently, we had a situation where we believed a person to be barricaded, which really wasn’t the case. The adult in crisis was living with his mother and had a history of mental illness. He required daily medication, and the mother had stopped providing it to him. After a few days of taking meds, he started acting normally, so she stopped giving him the meds and he had a crisis. He started threatening her, grabbed a knife, and ran into his bedroom. He locked himself in the bedroom. When our mental healthcare professional and the officers arrived, they were able to establish positive contact with the person and talk him into getting help. He did not go to jail. He went through the crisis intervention process, which put him back into treatment.

There was an education piece, too. Mom wanted to make sure her son was okay. Our crisis intervention nurse and the officer later returned to the home to make sure the mother was okay and that she understood what happened so she could avoid a similar situation in the future. They also gave her some resources, so she could get support when her son returned home. This scenario was recent, but similar situations play out all the time. It shows the relationship with the healthcare professionals and the officers working together.

What kind of training do your officers have in de-escalation and mental health – and is this adequate?

DeKalb Police has its own academy which is approximately 30 weeks long, and in that process we learn de-escalation techniques. We also get 40 hours of crisis intervention training. That comes directly from the 21st Century Policing Guidelines that were published by President Obama. 100% of our officers receive this mandatory training. We are partnered with NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] and other healthcare professionals that provide instruction and scenarios as practical tests for officers. We also visit a healthcare facility, where we see the treatment side. We meet with local doctors and nurses at the hospitals in our area so we can get a good understanding of what they go through and how we can work better together.

At this point, it’s the tip of an iceberg. It’s better than it was a few years ago, but it needs to go further. Some of the limitations have to do with police officers wearing too many hats. To ask us to diagnose or differentiate between different mental illnesses is too much. The direction we’re heading with these partnerships with health providers is definitely needed, but we need more.

Also, people who call 911 for a family member in crisis should better understand how to explain the scenario so police can respond most appropriately. There are many resources in the community that law enforcement may bring the person to, but we’re trying to find better ways to bring the help to the person where they are. That’s the direction we really want to go in.

What role does good mental health training play in reducing incarceration?

It’s definitely an active role. Whether it be a drug-induced incident, or undiagnosed mental health issues, or crisis intervention – if there’s violence against a person or an officer, sometimes that leads to charges. Those of us in criminal justice have to look at the whole process and make better determinations before it gets to that point.

For example, if I respond to a domestic call where someone is behaving with anger and hostility, and if the suspect gets violent with me, there’s a good chance he’s going to jail. We would like to be involved and get families help before these incidents happen.

We’ve had several situations where families refuse to believe their family member has a mental health issue. That education piece can’t just come from law enforcement – it has to come from other experts and members of the community. There has to be a way to reduce these emergencies and provide help before it gets out of control. We want to intervene early on. This will cut down on incarcerations, the filing of charges, injuries, and deaths.

Now with the rest of the criminal justice system, we have to ask whether we are helping them by incarcerating them or if there’s some type of educational process or treatment that would work better. An assault charge is an assault charge, but an assault charge where the defendant is mentally ill should warrant a different process. So we have to decide, “What are the circumstances? Are the courts really prepared or set up to deal with those circumstances?” Asking those questions will help us to cut down on incarcerations.

Is there a lesson you’d like to share with other police officers – anything you’d like to share from your experience doing this work?

Traditionally, we’ve had this mentality that only an officer can train officers. No one knows the walk of an officer. Our instructors are officers, our world is surrounded by officers. We have to do more to bring down the silos and barriers and allow external subject matter experts, such as healthcare professionals, help train officers at the foundation level of the police academy and throughout our training as officers. We have to move away from officers only being trained by other officers.

For young officers, it would help to see more than simply shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios. Especially when working with other professionals who have the same overall mission as we do, [interdisciplinary training] helps us understand that even though I’m an officer, my training and education makes me often look at things from one perspective. The earlier in my career that I'm exposed to concepts and ideas such as crisis-intervention-before-it-becomes-a-crisis and recognizing the signs of mental illness when I respond to a call, there are certain things I can do that will de-escalate the situation and help educate the family so it won't result in a traditional response to the scene.

This process is hard. And what I mean by that is the idea of someone other than police officers doing all the training for our new officers can be a little unnerving. It's almost asking us, to a degree, are we willing to work without a gun or vest or something to that effect? But I don't believe that to be so. I think that if more of us, especially in executive positions, can adapt to and incorporate these new concepts into the training of our new officers, it will help us deal with these situations that may not always be arrestable or a clear violation of a crime. We’re pretty stubborn and set in our ways, and we need to change that. 

Law Enforcement Action Partnership speaker Capt. Donnie James is an active duty police officer in Georgia. He's an expert in police responses to mental health crises, police training practices, and racial bias in the justice system. He is a proponent of body-worn cameras by police and improved awareness and treatment of PTSD in law enforcement.

Mikayla Hellwich is the speakers bureau & media relations director for LEAP.

*This interview has been edited for clarity from its original format.*