Edmonton police and medical researchers are crediting a home-grown training program for a drop in the use of force by officers dealing with the mentally ill.

"Their supervising sergeants noticed improvement," said Dr. Peter Silverstone, the psychiatrist with the University of Alberta behind the training program. "We also got feedback from people who deal with the police, homelessness and so on and they noticed changes."

Police joined up with the university after statistics showed beat officers were responding to more and more calls involving mentally ill people.

Between 2009 and 2011, the number of mental health-related calls to police jumped 40 per cent, highlighting the need for more and better training on the front lines.

Together they developed a program involving real life scenarios using actors to portray people struggling with different forms of mental illness.

More than 600 beat officers in Edmonton took part in a day of training, participating in six different scenarios where they had to defuse an emotional situation.

After each one, the actors gave the trainees feedback, telling them how the officer's actions made them feel.

The goal was to improve officer's empathy and communication skills, as well as their ability to de-escalate difficult situations, Silverstone said.

"Learning is best when it's done in an emotionally-aroused situation," he said.

"So what we did that was quite unique is that we taught officers in these emotionally-charged, very realistic situations  and that's why we believe it has such a long-lasting and positive effect."

The data shows the program change officers' behaviour, he said.

Jason Lefebevre, a 15-year veteran with the Edmonton police, said officers are often put in situations they are not specifically trained for.

Situations can quickly escalate, if police don't know what they are dealing with, he said.

"The risks are, for example, if someone is suffering from a severe withdrawal — and it's a medical condition and we don't perceive it as that — the person could die," he  said. 

Studies in Canada and the United Kingdom have found that around 40 per cent of individuals fatally shot by police were dealing with some kind of mental health issue at the time.

Terry Coleman, a retired police chief, has worked extensively with Canada's mental health commission.

Training in dealing with mental health issues has become more of a priority for police departments in part because of several high profile cases.

"There has been some tragedies that have resulted when situations like this haven't gone as well as they might," he said. 

Researchers are now launching a second phase of the program where more officers will receive training.

Researchers will also join officers on patrol to learn more about just how they deal with mental health issues as they face them in the field.

The program was written up in a medical journal today. 

With files from CBc's Briar Stewart and Silvana Benolich