When a police officer in Memphis killed a mentally ill man who was wielding a knife, the public outcry was strong and swift. Now, 28 years later, that tragedy has given rise to a movement to teach police how to better deal with people with mental illness they encounter in the community. That movement is Crisis Intervention Training, the so-called “Memphis model” of policing that was developed in the wake of the 1987 tragedy. CIT is a curriculum to teach law enforcement officers how to recognize when someone is having a psychiatric episode, how to de-escalate these potentially explosive situations and how to keep people from jail when they need mental health treatment.
This week, hundreds of law enforcement officers along with mental health advocates and providers convened at the McKimmon Center on the NC State University campus in Raleigh for a biannual conference on helping all those people work together better to serve North Carolinians with mental health problems.
“We now have about a 26 percent rate of officers around the state who have been trained since 2013,” said Jack Register, the incoming head of the North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The idea is that now we have people who understand that what they’re experiencing with someone is not criminality but psychiatric concerns.”
“You have to slow down and take your time with the person and don’t rush the situation,” Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page said. “Sometimes people are in a point in their psychosis that you can’t talk to them. But I found more often than not, we can talk to them and calm then down.”
He said this kind of interaction can save lives.
The evidence backs Page up: Research has shown that “police-based diversions” and CIT reduced the number of arrests for people with serious mental illnesses. In one study, the number of re-arrests for people with psychiatric problems dropped by 58 percent after officers were trained. The CIT training benefits officers too; other studies have shown that fewer law enforcement personnel were injured after training.
The 40-hour training program includes basic information about mental illnesses and how to recognize them, information about and visits to providers in the local mental health system, a review of laws and contact with people with mental health problems and their family members. The goal is to help officers learn to recognize potentially explosive situations and defuse them, getting people to treatment rather than jail, or worse.
“Basic CIT … is basically set up as a diversion model to keep low-risk offenders from going into the jail system on low-level crimes as opposed to getting them into the mental health system for services,” said Lori Ray, CIT coordinator for the Durham PD.
“Our view as caregivers is the CIT training is a big plus to reduce the amount of violence that might be the normal reaction of a police officer coming in with a command presence and issuing orders that won’t be followed,” said Tom Hadley, a board member of the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). “The normal officer might not recognize that there’s something else going on with this person. We’re trying to avoid violence from either side.”