Mental Health Crisis Training for Cops Faces Funding Gaps, Lack of Buy-In

Chicago police shot and killed two people this past weekend in West Garfield Park: a 19-year-old man reportedly suffering from mental health issues, and his 55-year-old downstairs neighbor who answered the door when police arrived.

This latest police-involved shooting has raised questions about whether Chicago police officers are equipped to deal with mental health crises.

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[Police Shootings Raise More Questions about Reform, Training]

Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, and Amy Watson, associate professor of social work at UIC, join “Chicago Tonight” to talk about the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training offered to Chicago police officers.

With respect to the Dec. 26 shooting in West Garfield Park–of which many details are still unknown–we asked James whether she believes a CIT-trained officer might have made a difference.

"It's a complicated question," she said. "The call was dispatched as a domestic, so the officers didn't have the information that could have–potentially–changed the way that they responded in that intervention. So, possibly.

"But I also think that we need to make sure that dispatch is probing and asking difficult questions, that is, getting more information from the caller, who is in crisis, who's in distress."

"The Chicago Police Department has provided some training to OEMC [Office of Emergency Management and Communications] call takers and dispatchers," said Watson. "That's something that more resources for the program would allow them to refresh that training and work through those issues with OEMC to make sure that those calls are being identified so they can get the best response possible."

About the program

The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training is a 40-hour weeklong course for sworn law enforcement that is taken voluntarily, according to Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago who has been involved with the program since 2005. (Read NAMI's explanation of the CIT program.)

“It was originally sold as [an] officer safety program – how can you better understand somebody who’s in crisis, so that officer can more appropriately de-escalate the situation. But also, we introduce in the program a panel of folks who have had law enforcement interactions because of their mental illness, and it humanizes it for officers,” James told "Chicago Tonight" over the phone on Tuesday. “It gives them contact with people living in recovery from mental illness and gives them a face, so it’s not just ‘those people.’ I think that really changes the shape of learning.”

Research shows that CIT-trained officers use those skills to de-escalate situations.

“What we’ve found is that officers trained in CIT are less likely to use force with more resistant subjects, and more likely to make efforts to link people to services, whether that’s taking them to the emergency room or working to contact providers to get them hooked up for services,” said Amy Watson, associate professor of social work at UIC who’s also been involved with the CIT program since 2005.

“What we teach in CIT is, if it’s a nonviolent misdemeanor crime and you are aware or you believe the behavior they’re demonstrating is because of mental illness, take them to a hospital for an assessment.”

–Alexa James

Watson is conducting a study funded by National Institute of Mental Health that examines calls handled by CIT-trained officers and those who haven’t received training.

“More recently in our work we’re doing some ride alongs, and the data suggest that CIT-trained officers responding to calls with mentally ill people see linking them to services as part of their role,” she said. “They also say the skills they learn work to de-escalate situations with people who have a mental health crisis, but also with people who are agitated for other reasons. Some of the skills of slowing things down, taking the time and listening work fairly well with anybody who’s upset or agitated.”

Both Watson and James think more police officers should be CIT trained. Approximately 1,860 Chicago police officers, or 15 percent of the force, have received CIT training according to Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

“The model of CIT is a volunteer model, and I don’t think it would be a problem to have enough volume to get up to 35 percent of the department trained,” Watson said. “It’s just a matter of holding enough trainings to get people through.”

James says that because of a lapse in state funding, the last training took place July 1. She estimates that about 200 police officers could have been trained since then.

“I’d like to see every watch in every district have at least a few CIT-trained officers,” James said. “I think that for commanders, lieutenants, captains–what have you–just providing capacity so officers can go to the training for the 40 hours. Making that a priority and supporting them would be a huge win.”

In addition to training officers, investments should be made in mental health services, James says.

“I think if we invest appropriately in community mental health services, we will see a decrease in crisis calls to police,” she said. “If we invested more in community mental health treatment and officers were well aware of what treatment is available, it would be a better system. … What we teach in CIT is, if it’s a nonviolent misdemeanor crime and you are aware or you believe the behavior they’re demonstrating is because of mental illness, take them to a hospital for an assessment.”

Watson stressed that the CIT model is more than just training.

“Though it’s important, it’s also a model where collaboration is a key piece. In a jurisdiction, and Chicago did this when it created its program, you bring in stakeholders to help develop the training, you use subject matter experts at community agencies to deliver the training, you have panels of family members and people with lived experiences,” she said. “The other piece is for emergency communicators to have the training and information to identify calls and send the right officers from the beginning.”


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