The Value of Crisis Intervention Training

By:  Andrew Bates


In 1988, after a fatal shooting of a person with mental illness, the Memphis Police Department developed the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), an intensive 40-hour course designed to teach officers to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and de-escalate situations involving people with mental illness. The program trained officers who were called on to handle calls involving people with mental illness. These officers worked closely with mental health practitioners to offer resources to mental health consumers and their families. The program was successful and was praised by police officers and community members. Fewer officers and members of the public were injured, and people with mental illness were diverted to treatment instead of being processed through the criminal court system.  Since that time, variations of this program have spread across the country.  Programs have been in place in California since the mid 1990’s and have proven successful.

Some jurisdictions modified the training and offer a 40, 32 or 24-hour course for personnel who will work with mental health clinicians in a “co-response” model, where the clinician responds after the initial law enforcement responds to secure the scene.  This clinician is then able to provide on-scene counselling, referral to support services and provide follow-up care.  These officers also serve as subject matter experts for calls involving subjects with mental illness. The goal of this program is to provide better services to mental health consumers, to free officers from extended time at the scene of a call for service, and to help the caller or their family member develop resources and a plan to manage future crises without needing to call 911.

In the past few years, the reduction in mental health services has resulted in a dramatic increase in the calls for service involving people with mental illness.  Patrol officers and deputies are routinely dealing with calls for mental health help and other calls (crime, disturbance, etc.) fueled by mental illness, but have not received additional training.  Too often, the six hours of POST mandated training for the basic academy is barely enough to handle 5150 detentions, and can’t cover additional aspects like recognition of symptoms, de-escalation, and referral to providers of counselling or other outpatient services.

A variation of the full-length class is the 8-hour Crisis Intervention Course, which is a basic level class to introduce dispatchers, front counter personnel, patrol personnel, detectives, community service officers and others working in a public contact capacity.  These classes can be completed with only one shift away from normal duties, which makes it possible for all personnel in an agency to complete the training.  Personnel who attend this class can better recognize symptoms of mental illness, both in person and when hearing descriptions of behavior in calls for service. Attendees learn to use de-escalation techniques to diffuse situations, resulting in using force less often and being better able to describe attempts at de-escalation when force is used.  At some agencies, these 8-hour courses  are mandatory for all line personnel.

Recent court decisions have noted an increasing requirement for law enforcement training in how to respond to people with mental illness.  Some courts have held there can be negligence liability on the part of a law enforcement agency based on how they approach a subject, even when justified force is later used against the subject.

Community expectations match this recent court requirement.  A search of news stories yields numerous examples, both positive and negative, of interactions between police and people with mental illness.  The consistent thread in these stories is that CIT-type training typically produces better results, fewer injuries and less negative publicity than stories where the involved officers did not have training.  The negative stories very frequently point to a lack of training by law enforcement in this area, and often opine that training could have prevented the result.  Conversely, some stories, even with a tragic outcome, are less negative because the agency spokesperson is able to point out that the involved officers had completed specialized training to deal with a person with mental illness.

At the time of writing, there are two bills in the California Legislature, one requiring 20 hours of additional mental health training for peace officers with a 4-hour refresher every four years, and the other requiring 40 hours of training for field training officers, and 20 hours of training for trainee police officers in the field.  Either of these bills may be modified or changed before final enactment.  However, the fact that these bills were introduced indicates a strong preference by some in the legislature that law enforcement adopt and incorporate this type of training into their program.

Author:  Andrew Bates



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