When Wendi Shackelford stepped off the airplane in Anchorage for the first time in 1989, she knew in her heart that she was right where God wanted her to be.
Wendi was a 17-year-old high school senior from California, actively pursuing college scholarships in both volleyball and basketball. When the University of Alaska (UAA) Seawolves invited her up, she decided to hop on a plane for the first time in her young life to see for herself if moving to Alaska might be in the cards. It didn’t take long to know. Wendi accepted the UAA scholarship and soon became the center for the women’s basketball team from 1990-94. She also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice.
Beginnings in Law Enforcement
Freshly out of college, Wendi decided to stay in Anchorage and set her heart on earning a position within the police department. It was a natural decision for her. If accepted, she would become the fifth generation in her family who worked as a police officer – including her own father, who had worked as a California Highway Patrol Officer for years.
It was a highly competitive process, with over 2000 applicants applying for 30 positions. Being naturally competitive, she embraced the process wholeheartedly and worked through the challenges. One such problem was her own health during the application period. Just before taking the physical agility test, Wendi discovered two lumps in her breast. She opted for a quickly-scheduled surgery to remove them, and after only two weeks of recovery, she took on the physical agility test and passed. She had earned one of the 30 available spots.
When Wendi officially began her work for the Anchorage Police Department in November of 1994, she had no clue how far-reaching her work would be within the State of Alaska. It was only the beginning.
As Wendi served in the first years, she found herself growing more and more frustrated with calls involving mental health issues. One such case came in 1999 when she was required to take custody of someone with severe mental health issues, including a personality disorder and instances of domestic violence. As she went through the process of detaining this person, she had a nagging sense that there was more she could be doing to help cases like this one. In what she describes as a “cornerstone moment,” Wendi realized that she needed to be better trained to intervene appropriately in mental health cases. Not only did she need the training, but she was genuinely hungry to help work through mental health cases when they came up.
Soon after, Wendi was selected by the Anchorage Police Department to attend a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program in Memphis, TN. The program offered by Memphis PD was world-renowned for its best practices in the realm of crisis intervention. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), paid for her to attend the program, eager to help the police department improve understanding of mental health issues and increase training among its officers in the community.
Reflecting, Wendi realizes how pivotal her CIT training was to the course of her career as well as the focus on mental health issues in Alaska. All the many pieces of her education, strengths, and hunger to help came together in a singular focus. She recalls, “It took who I was naturally wired to be and channeled it in a direction that gave me the ability to step up into the role I’m actually really well known for around the state now.”
Crisis intervention training not only opened the door for Wendi to begin reaching people all through Alaska, but it also served as a valuable resource when a mental health crisis touched her own family. Looking back, she notes, “If I wasn’t convinced before that, I was then. I’ve never been more grateful for a skill set then when this topic came right to my front door.” She then added, “one in five adults has a diagnosable mental health issue. It’s non-discriminatory regardless of what you do for a paycheck.” Mental health issues touch people of all walks of life, even those closest to us.
Since leaving Memphis, Wendi has taught the CIT program to 15 police academies and over 400 individuals.
Embarking on a New Adventure
With CIT work beginning to take root in the State, Wendi embarked on a new challenge, to support the Anchorage School District as one of the original 12 School Resource Officers (SRO) in the area. Although she was leery of loosening her grip on the CIT work she had been spearheading in the police department, she embraced the opportunity in front of her and took on the new position with vigor. She was assigned to Chugiak High School, with oversight duties for two middle schools and seven elementary schools in the surrounding area.
Instead of patrolling the Anchorage streets, Wendi now spent her days reading to first and second graders, teaching D.A.R.E. classes to middle schoolers, and working criminal cases at the high school. Soon the new work more than filled up her schedule. Armed with Wendi’s phone number and home address, students and staff began calling on Wendi around the clock. She witnessed first-hand the many transformations in “her kids” lives as she spent time with them over the years.
Little by little, lingering CIT work from her days as a patrol officer began to require more of her time. Even though she had left her job as a patrol officer, Wendi had remained the unofficial primary point of contact for mental health calls with the police department. Not only was the workload growing within the schools, but she had continued to take calls from the Anchorage Police Department, other agencies, officers, records, and out of state contacts regarding mental health issues. Her unique expertise and training were critically in demand.
Wendi recalls, “I went into the SRO job in ’03 and was still running the full CIT team. I was the funnel point for everything mental health crisis; I became the problem solver, a ‘Wendi fix it’ kind of thing regarding CIT.” And she was exhausted.
Though she loved the work she was doing in both arenas, she simply could not keep up the pace. After carefully documenting the amount of CIT work she had been doing, Wendi presented a case to the Anchorage Police Department for a full-time CIT officer position. The need was apparent. With little resistance, her request was approved.
Mental health calls were increasing, and the Anchorage Police Department desperately needed a full-time officer to manage them. Wendi resigned from her position at the schools and began as a full-time CIT officer.
And so, the work that she had been unofficially doing for years became codified. She became the state’s first Crisis Intervention Training Officer, complete with a new call sign – CIT-1. Her days were now filled with the busy work of helping exclusively in mental health crisis. The dispatch center routed most calls directly to Wendi, even if mental health issues were only suspected. She often self-deployed to calls where she felt she could be of assistance and regularly followed up on other cases. She also worked closely with the Alaska State Troopers Judicial Services Unit in executing mental health court orders.
Her work was vibrant and meaningful, helping law enforcement officers all over the state learn the skills needed to respond professionally and appropriately when instances of mental health arose.
Throughout her entire career, Wendi has been unwaveringly committed to the cause of mental health training. She has dedicated herself to shepherding individuals and families to the help they need when mental health issues arise. “I have seen all aspects of how mental health trauma and crisis is a community issue that affects all of us,” she stated. Regardless of her title at any given point in her career her desire to help has been steady. “I want people to be able to call the police when they need help. I want them to know that there are specially trained dispatchers and police officers trained and equipped to handle these kinds of things for the people you care about. They also have the knowledge and awareness of the resources that are available to them.”
After 20 years in the force, Wendi decided it was time to give her body a break from the rigorous demands of a police officer’s duties. She finished up her last 18 months on the job doing what she was most passionate about: helping individuals, families, and fellow officers affected by mental health issues and providing valuable training from what she had learned after many years on the front lines. She remained convinced that with the right information and training, many more people would continue to be helped.
She touched countless victims, children, families, and law encouragement officers throughout the state through her work, and retired, having changed the landscape for police interaction with mental health cases forever. She remarked fondly, “I felt like I left with my head held high, making a difference by honing a very specific skill set. I felt proud of the work, the legacy, and the investment of my life in other people. Not just the citizens but my co-workers. And that’s all good to me. That’s what I wanted to walk away with.”
She now remembers stepping off that plane from California all those years ago, acknowledging that God had indeed had a good plan for her in Anchorage. And many of us are the glad recipients of it.
Although her work with the Anchorage Police Department is now over, Wendi is hardly finished championing the cause of mental health training in Alaska. She continues her work, now as UAA’s Training Coordinator for the Youth Mental Health First Aid program. She will continue to help others develop the tools and compassion to help in times of mental health crisis, positively affecting children and families for many more years to come.