A handful of law enforcement and mental health officials from all over the region have spent this week equipping themselves with skills to address civilians who suffer from mental illnesses.

Officials with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Arkansas and the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy are holding a weeklong Crisis Intervention Training course at the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center. The training largely focuses on de-escalation tactics that the two organizations advise law enforcement and mental health officials to use when addressing someone who is having a mental health-related episode.

By the end of today, 30 law enforcement officials and four mental health care specialists from the area will have completed 40 hours of mental health-related training and hold a Crisis Intervention Training certification.

"This is our first training here," Lt. Theodore Haase with the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office said. Haase is the primary course instructor.

National Alliance on Mental Illness of Arkansas Executive Director Kim Arnold said the training is part of Arkansas Act 423, which mandates that 20 percent of all law enforcement in the state must eventually have Crisis Intervention Training certification. Haase said he and other state law enforcement officials started the training "about three years ago" and took off after Gov. Asa Hutchinson took interest.

Haase said law enforcement in Sebastian County has shown great interest in the training, as Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck was instrumental in developing and passing Act 423. The class of 34 included 13 officials from the Fort Smith Police Department — just under 10 percent of its full force.

“That’s a very large class," Haase said of those enrolled in this week's course.

Arnold said the course instructors began the week of training by teaching attendees about the history of mental illness and medications. She said the instructors cover schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders and substance abuse in this portion of the training.

Arnold said the attendees then interacted with people suffering from mental illnesses. She said these interactions give law enforcement officials "the chance to understand that there’s another side to this, that there’s another side to that individual, that there are individuals that receive treatment, and they hear their stories.”

On Wednesday, the attendees began their hands-on de-escalation training, Arnold said.

"We start with them understanding how to restate problems," Arnold said. "That’s hard for officers, because they’re used to, 'Come in, command, take control, do this, get it fixed and go to the next step.'"

The attendees role played the de-escalation techniques Thursday afternoon. The scenarios the attendees acted out were real-life situations that they had handled in the field, Arnold said.

"What we’re trying to tell officers here is, 'Take a minute, slow down, find out the problem and interact with individuals a little differently,'" Arnold said.

Haase said that while the training can prevent a situation from becoming violent, it is not a replacement for justified lethal force.

"You can’t create an unrealistic expectation that you can stop all deadly force by learning a de-escalation technique," he said. "There are going to be situations that are not going to be changed by that, but what this does is this provides those first responders, those people that are first encountering the situation, with a whole new set of skills that they can use to try to stabilize that situation before it gets to that level."

Haase also said that the value of the training, which ends today, "is often not immediately apparent" while the attendees are taking the course.

"They can see the impact that it really has out there on the streets," he said.