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First Responders Recognized for Work with Mentally Ill Individuals

Alexandria's Fire and Police departments along with the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Community and Human Services recognized officers and others for their exemplary work.

Four first responders on Thursday were honored for their exemplary performance after graduating from a training program designed to better equip them with necessary skills when they interact with individuals exhibiting behavioral health issues.

Alexandria Police Officer Bennie Evans said at the awards ceremony that the Crisis Intervention Team program gave him a certain satisfaction in his job: “I can always write a ticket. I can always take someone to jail, but can I solve a problem?”

Evans, who was noted for his work with the city’s homeless population, also was part of the Alexandria delegation that attended the National CIT Conference last year. He was singled out for helping a particular Alexandrian, who had been homeless for years, finally seek the benefits of help and support.

Crisis Intervention Team graduates have completed a 40-hour course helping them recognize different signs and symptoms of mental illness and includes role-playing, guest speakers who have overcome debilitating affect of mental illness and tours of related facilities, among other things.

Liz Wixson, director of Clinical and Emergency Services with the city’s Community and Human Services Department, works with all law enforcement departments to ensure the program runs smoothly.

The program “is life saving and life changing,” she said, adding that it helps the community think differently about people experiencing mental illness.

Teresa Smith was named CIT Department of Emergency Communications’ Employee of the Year for helping develop training for 911 dispatchers to recognize signs of mental illness and when to dispatch a CIT officer.

“The program is a terrific example of collaboration” between the Fire and Police departments as well as the Sheriff’s Office, said Mayor Bill Euille at the awards ceremony. He added that Alexandria’s program has been recognized for its ability to divert people with mental illness away from the criminal justice system. Vice Mayor Kerry Donley also attended the event.

Lt. John Kapetanis, a 32-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was recognized as Deputy of the Year for being the go-to guy when a citizen exhibits behavioral health symptoms and a first responder is needed to intervene.

Officer Joe Kirby was named for CIT Intervention of the Year for his particular dedication to helping an unidentified Alexandrian overcome severe alcoholism and depression.

“We take this program seriously,” Police Chief Earl Cook said.

Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said the program has made a huge difference for his office. About 25 percent of the jail population has mental illness, he said, and jail is not where someone “who was arrested for getting drunk in public should be getting treatment” when there are other, better ways to deal with that.

Each award recipient received a plaque and a $500 merit award.

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