Omaha Police Ramp Up Training For Handling People With Mental Illness

The Omaha Police Department is ramping up their training when it comes to its officers handling people with mental illness. 

There has been a renewed focus on training since last summer when two Omaha Police officers were fired after allegedly beating and using a TASER on Zachary Bear Heels, a man who struggled with mental illness. Former officer Scotty Payne is currently on trial, accused of using his Taser on Bear Heels twelve times. 

Members of the Native American community said Bear Heels was mentally ill and had been kicked off a bus on his way home to Oklahoma. They said they believe all of the actions were a result of a lack of police training on how to deal with those struggling with mental health.

"For someone to come here and die because he was let off a bus and didn't know what to do next because he had a mental illness, that's a tragedy," Leo Yankton said.

Dr. Donna Polk, CEO of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition, tells 6 News that mental health issues in Omaha are now in the spotlight. "Zachary Bear Heels' case is probably getting a lot of attention now, but we need to make sure that EMTs, firemen, of course the police, because in some communities people become very apprehensive when the police arrive for any reason."

Omaha police said they are addressing the issue. The department has increased the number of Crisis Intervention Team officers and the number of training sessions offered each year.

Right now, a third of police officers in Omaha are CIT trained, with the goal of every officer receiving the training. OPD has also added an additional mental health co-responder and conducted Native American cultural diversity training.

There has also been additional training on the use of tasers, which includes an updated police review.

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray said the police department will receive a more than $690,000 grant to give the department more personnel and more funding to deal with the mental health. "I see this as a very positive grant because it's the opportunity to train more officers in this area, and in training more officers, the outcome would be better than they have in the past."

The Bureau of Justice Assistance Grant will cover the period from Jan. 1, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2021.

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