Edmonton police officers are taking advantage of a groundbreaking training partnership between the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service – to increase empathy, and reduce violence in incidents where police encounter people with mental illnesses, while on the job.

The program focuses on non-verbal communication such as body language, connection, and empathy – using a number of trusted tools, in a new way.

“Teaching empathy is not new, using actors is not new, putting them together to train police officers, that is what’s new,” Dr. Peter Silverstone with the U of A Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry said.

The training program was developed by the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and is the first of its kind in North America – the results of a study on it were published in a psychiatric journal.

Those results showed a 40 percent increase in officer’s ability to recognize mental illness, and saw the use of physical force drop.

“I don’t think anyone expects police officers to be able to diagnose mental health illnesses,” Cst. Jason Lefebvre said. “But if we have a clue about what’s going on it helps us build a rapport with the person who is suffering and be there to help us when they need it the most.”

The project kept track of outcomes, and measured behavioural changes following the one-day program.

Researchers found the program had lasting effects.

“Six months later we still had positive outcomes,” Dr. Silverstone said. “Yes, we were surprised a single day’s training, having an effect six months later, it was a risk when we started this training, we didn’t know if it would pay off, and it did.”

More than 660 Edmonton police officers were involved in the pilot project – and more are expected to participate in the future.

It’s hoped the training program can be used by other police services can benefit from it.

With files from Serena Mah