LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In the middle of rush hour, Little Rock police officers rushed to a man threatening to kill himself in a downtown restaurant.
Officer James Burnett was right around the corner on that July afternoon and was first to arrive on scene.
“Got the scissors up to his throat, he was pressing them,” Burnett said.
Burnett said he drew his stun gun because the man, who we are not identifying, had the scissors. The officer said he realized that made things worse.
“I had my taser out for a very, very split second ‘cause he was very adamant he didn’t like that,” Burnett said.
Burnett had just finished Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) weeks before. The program gives officers insight into someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
“I’m relaxed. Obviously, just talking to him, trying to get more on a deeper connection with him,” Burnett recounted.
The man and Burnett exchanged names. The officer was able to slow the situation down, all of which are techniques part of CIT, according to Little Rock Police Department Assistant Chief Michael Miller.
“Recognizing body language, recognizing the verbiage that may be used or how someone is talking,” Miller said.
In 2017, Arkansas lawmakers passed the Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act. It encourages police agencies to have at least 20% of their force CIT certified.
The North Little Rock Police Department has 8% of its force certified. A department spokeswoman said most officers have gone through some kind of crisis intervention training but not the mandated hours required for the state certification. NLRPD said it will put some officers through a class next month.
Pulaski County has 45% of deputies trained.
In Little Rock, there are 178 officers certified. That’s about 34% of the capital city’s police force.
Miller said the department’s training officers and recruits are now required to complete the CIT program, which will eventually get the department to 100%.
“We have made a commitment. We’re going to make sure every single one of our new recruits goes through this before they can get out of their FTO [Field Training Officer] program,” Miller said.
Miller said more than 40% of the officers and supervisors certified are assigned to patrol.
“You cannot police your way out of mental health issues, and you have to adapt to new measures, new training in order to adequately service the public,” Miller said.
Little Rock Police Department officials said another round of officers will go through the certification process on Sept. 26, which will get the department close to 200 officers properly trained to help someone in a mental health crisis.
Police body camera footage showed the man had the scissors to his neck for several minutes.
“Do you mind if I have a seat? Do me a favor, before I get closer to you, I need you to take those away from you, okay,” Burnett told the man.
Shortly after, the man said he was hungry and thirsty. The officers were able to convince the man to trade the scissors for something to eat and drink.
“That day at that time, I did my job, and somebody was able to not only hurt themselves or somebody else, they got the help that they needed — to possibly help them further down the road,” Burnett said.
Burnett’s backup officers kept their word and ordered the man food and something to drink. One of the officers pulled out her wallet to pay before the restaurant decided to waive the bill.
Burnett and these officers will tell you, no call is ever the same but wants each one to have the same outcome.
“I don’t come to work to try and be a hero,” Burnett said. “I come work, do my job with the training that I’ve been given.”
After the man finished eating, he was taken to the hospital.
If you or someone you know is facing a crisis, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.