Almost every day, it seems, we read about the police shooting and killing someone with a mental illness who is going through a crisis—and who oftentimes hasn’t violated any laws. Last year alone, police shot and killed 1017 people; mental illness was involved with about 25 percent of those victims, according the Washington Post’s database of police shootings.

Some police departments around the country are trying to put a stop to these fatalities by figuring out a better way to deal with the unique stresses of handling tense situations with individuals who have mental illnesses. One method is Crisis Intervention Team training, or CIT. CIT is a collaboration between police and local mental health services focused on cops using less lethal force and non-lethal force. CIT also aims to reduce arrests while helping people obtain mental health services.

“We think every officer should have training and awareness in mental illness,” says Lt. Richard Cavanaugh, an officer with the Montclair, New Jersey police and a board member of CIT international. “We look at CIT-trained officers as specialist officers,” he says, “like you have SWAT officers or bomb technicians.”

What is Mental Health Training?

The 40-hour CIT program aims to teach participants increased empathy. Training includes techniques on how to de-escalate a situation. Police in the program also listen to recordings of voices similar to those that someone with schizophrenia hears. There are at-home exercises requiring officers to take multiple daily candy “pills”—to help them understand how difficult it is to stick to a medication regimen.

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CIT is taught in every state except West Virginia. The program partners law enforcement officers with mental health associations, screening centers, and organizations that help find housing for homeless individuals dealing with mental illness conditions.

Nadine Venezia, a licensed social worker, and chief operating officer of The Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris in New Jersey works closely with the police and says the training has been helpful to the mental health system and individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. She supports the collaboration.

“Having the officers trained allows them to appropriately respond to individuals with a severe and persistent mental illness,” says Venezia. “The training helps with public safety and gives the officers additional insight when responding. When they are called to the scene, they are able to de-escalate the situation.”

Mental Health Training for Police: A Way to Bridge Funding Cuts or a Band-Aid?

Experts say many mentally ill people who seek treatment don’t receive it, although treatment can greatly reduce violence committed by—and against—them. According to the Washington Post, mental hospital beds per capita in the US are lower today than they have been since 1850.

Writer David Kopel in his 2015 article, “Facts About Mental Illness and Crime,” reports that over the last 50 years, mental hospital capacity has dwindled, while prison and jail capacity has vastly expanded. As a result, mentally ill prisoners make up a large fraction of the jail and prison population.

Venezia says CIT is one way to address the issue. “Of course, getting more funding for mental health would be helpful but it’s also helpful for a police officer to be more compassionate. Broadening their understanding of mental illness can assist police when they are called to de-escalate a situation.”

Cavanaugh agrees, adding that working as a team is effective. “CIT’s emphasis is on the team,” he says.  “It really is about a group of people working with one another to get assistance for someone with mental illness.”

How CIT Works on the Police Beat

In Montclair (population 38,000), 25% of police officers have received crisis intervention team training. According to Cavanaugh, this training has been invaluable. He recalls a recent instance of how it made a difference.

The police department received a call that a woman was yelling out of her window that she was going to rape the neighbors’ children. Upon arriving at the scene, Cavanaugh and two other officers trained in CIT went into the house to find the woman saying she was Queen of the Nile.

“She was hearing voices, she was completely delusional, and she was making comments about the ethnicity of one of the officers, calling him a Mexican (he was mixed race of Caucasian and African American). You let that go, you aim for pure de-escalation,” says Cavenaugh. “We told her we are not there to hurt her, we are there to help her, and she denied she needed help. We don’t argue with her, we talk in low volumes of voice, we act calming to her.”

CIT has also proven effective for situations beyond those involving possible violence to others.

Cavanaugh recalls a night when a woman attempted to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. She didn’t want to get help. “I looked at her and we made eye contact and I said ‘It looks like you are having a bad day,'” Cavanaugh recalls. “At that point, I knew we connected and I put gauze pads on her wrists. She didn’t want to go to the hospital and was embedded in the couch.”

The pair began talking. Cavanaugh asked her about her love of baseball and her romantic relationship. “We talked about everything,” he says. “It was about building rapport.”

They spoke for about 45 minutes as Cavanaugh kept direct pressure on the wounds. Once she felt comfortable, the woman willingly went to the hospital. “We say we are there to help,” Cavanaugh says.

He’s also gotten to know family members of those he’s helped and has recommended not only mental health resources but suggestions with legal issues.

Mental Health Training and Schizophrenia

The unique “hearing voices” segment of the training was developed by a woman who has schizophrenia and experienced audible hallucinations. She wrote down all the things she was hearing and recorded them so others could hear and learn from it.

Cavanaugh says this aspect of the training enables police officers to really understand that “just because they are talking to someone, that person may not be receiving what you are saying.”

And when responding to a call regarding someone with delusions, they know what to ask: “Are you hearing voices? What is going on now? Is the voice telling you to harm someone? Is the voice telling you to harm me? Are the voices telling you to do something you don’t want to be doing?” Cavanaugh says.

Cavenaugh once met Kevin Hines, who survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge after voices in his head told him to jump.

“The most poignant thing was that he didn’t want to commit suicide, the voices compelled him,” Cavanaugh says. “I want the people in the hearing voices training to understand that people may be doing things they don’t want to do, but the voices are compelling them. This helps the officers understand ‘this person isn’t not listening to me because he is a jerk, it’s because the voices are telling them to do something else.'”

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Last Updated: Oct 2, 2020