Officer Joseph Kirby regularly encounters people with mental health issues while on duty with the Alexandria police, and he uses training he received two years ago to recognize the signs of mental illness and to keep those encounters from escalating.

"It seems like there's so much mental illness out there, and we end up coming into contact with it almost every day," Kirby said.

Kirby completed a specialized training academy in 2011 for the city's Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. An additional 15 people from the Alexandria police, sheriff's office, fire department and other agencies graduated from the program on Feb. 8 after 40 hours of training.

"We're trying to dispel the stigma and the stereotypes and put a more realistic face on the person with psychiatric problems," said Jon Teumer, mental health coordinator for the training program.

The program helps police officers avoid the use of force in crisis situations -- and according to Teumer, it can also increase the likelihood that a mentally ill person will receive treatment rather than being sent to jail for small offenses.

Another objective of the program, according to CIT law enforcement coordinator Sgt. Courtney Ballantine, is to familiarize the officers and first responders with resources that are available in the city.

"People like the course because this is relevant to what they do," Ballantine said. "The officers and first responders are out there day to day, responding to people -- and any training that will make them feel more confident with it is going to be a sought-after class."