There’s a better way for police to interact with the mentally ill
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A new toolkit launched last week by the U.S Department of Justice will help law enforcement officers deal with mentally ill individuals.

It couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time, given the number of shootings involving police and mentally ill people and the fact that so many of our mentally ill citizens are now warehoused in prisons.

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The Police-Mental Health Coalition (PMHC) toolkit advises law enforcement agencies in how to set up, maintain and evaluate partnerships with mental health providers in their local areas. It was presented at the 2016 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Key elements to this partnership are the training of officers and the existence of a safe place, such as a local psychiatric emergency room, to take people in crisis.

The idea of a partnership between law enforcement and mental health providers is not new.

We know that it works based on the experiences of many agencies across the country that have implemented a tried-and- true version of a Police-Mental Health Coalition, known as the Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. CIT involves extra training for officers, along with community partnerships with mental health providers.

For training, the officers are first taught how to recognize the most common signs of mental illness and developmental disability. They learn the appropriate ways to handle persons in crisis, regardless of diagnosis. The behavior of the person in crisis becomes predictable to them, based on what we know of brain science, and the officers no longer view mental-health-driven situations as threatening.

Second, officers are trained in de-escalation techniques. They rehearse real-world situations and are evaluated on their ability to maintain eye contact and a steady voice, while pursuing productive, sensitive engagement with the citizen.

Finally, CIT training is grounded in empathy. Trainees spend time sharing personal experiences with mental illness, adversity and crisis. This process helps officers to become more aware of the humanity they share with the people in crisis.

With community partners, CIT programs coordinate support services. In our hometown of Durham, N.C., any police officer can take a citizen in crisis to the local Recovery Response Center (RRC). The center has a “no wrong door” policy, meaning that no one will be turned away. The RRC has a full staff of mental health professionals 24/7, but if other resources are needed, the RRC will help to find them. Officers spend less than 5 minutes at the RRC and are quickly back to their beats. The people brought to the RRC avoid jail time, and hopefully future 911 calls.

This may sound expensive, but it’s far cheaper than legal proceedings, imprisonment or a wrongful death verdict.

Data from around the country show that CIT programs work. CIT-trained officers are more likely to report verbal engagement or negotiation as the highest level of force used. Even when physical force is used, CIT officers are more likely to refer subjects to mental health treatment than to arrest, saving unnecessary time and cost to the criminal justice system.

In addition to protecting citizens in crisis, CIT training protects law enforcement officers as well. In a Memphis, Tenn., study, officers were three times less likely to be injured on a mental health call if they had CIT training.

A productive partnership between law enforcement and mental health providers can reduce incarceration of mentally ill citizens, connect citizens with much-needed services and increase safety for officers.

In today’s disconnected world, this model allows us to see police officers as allies rather than adversaries, and create safer communities for us all.

Schramm-Sapyta is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Smothers is a graduate of Duke’s Masters in Biomedical Sciences program. Follow the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences on Twitter @DukeBrain.


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