‘Keith’s Law’ essential to modern public safety efforts

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Law enforcement and public safety personnel, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, often serve as our first line of defense in any crisis.

When someone has died a violent death, it will be a police officer or sheriff’s deputy who not only investigates, but also delivers the bad news to loved ones. When someone has lost all of his or her worldly possessions in a fire or natural disaster, it is likely a firefighter will be first on the scene. When someone is injured in any of these events or suffering from a health emergency, an EMT or paramedic will come to his or her aid.

Those who work in these professions are the most likely to encounter people at their very worst, and they are always expected to provide immediate, compassionate and frequently life-saving care — regardless of the risks they face.

Now, as a recession has led to budget cuts for health and human services, the people in these professions are finding themselves serving in another role they may not have intended to fill: that of mental health counselor.

Detention centers here and across the country are filling with inmates who have behaved unlawfully because of the lack of care available to them as members of our communities who are either mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or very often both. While that does not and cannot excuse their crimes, it is impossible to deny the new crisis this is causing in our justice system.

This is the reason Crisis Intervention Team training was created. CIT training, which is not mandated by any governing agency, involves about 40 hours of training for law enforcement officers and mental health professionals.The goal is to find a better way to respond to people with mental illnesses or who are experiencing a crisis. CIT is an internationally recognized model for this.

Many in our community believe 18-year-old Keith Vidal might still be alive today if only the police officer who shot and killed him had received Crisis Intervention Team training. We will never know for sure.

In the wake of the schizophrenic Boiling Spring Lakes teen’s violent death, Vidal’s friends and family have proposed Keith’s Law, which would add mandatory 40-hour CIT training to Basic Law Enforcement Training.

The proposal has been submitted to state Rep. Frank Iler, who said he thinks it is an excellent idea. Iler has promised to research the feasibility of the law before pitching it to fellow legislators, who must surely recognize the need for it.

One key component of making the law a reality is finding funding for it, Iler said, and he is right. But as the proposal’s author, Anthony Owens, pointed out, the expense would surely pay off if it can help prevent further tragedy and loss of life.

That aligns perfectly with the goals of anyone who works in public safety.