Diffusing crisis

Memphis police asked how an armed confrontation with a mentally ill individual might have been prevented, and found a unique answer


     Also among the untended fallout from this legislation was the subsequent wide-spread criminalization of mental illness. Since commitment to a mental institution has become more difficult, law enforcement too often remains a last resort. Much too frequently, responding officers have little training beyond their academy days, leading to both public relations disasters and rapid escalation into new levels of violence.

     Families of the mentally ill are many times frustrated at the inefficiency of the system — and they are put off at what they perceive as an often heavy-handed approach. That makes many loathe to call police, even when problems escalate beyond control. Responding officers, on the other hand, often find themselves face-to-face with situations for which their training has not properly prepared them. Just as often they are faced with few options and little in the way of resources. As a result the margin for error is unacceptably great — too much force, and a family ends up grieving for a member whose real crime was an inability to think rationally; too little and responding officers put their own lives and the lives of others in the community in serious jeopardy.

     Obviously, more training helps officers work through to the best approach. But the Memphis PD went several steps further than simply providing extra training. Recognizing the need for compassionate and positive handling of the mentally ill, the Memphis PD took the initiative and created a program that today is used successfully in dozens of agencies across the country.

     The program builds a team of officers available to respond to calls that partner with families, mental health providers and individuals who are diagnosed with mental diseases. The Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, preserves the individual's dignity, insures greater safety for both responding officers and the mentally ill person — called consumers — and reassures families.

Addressing the issue

     Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis PD coordinates the city's CIT, which grew out of a concern that family members of mentally disturbed individuals had when summoning police help.

     "They felt the officers were in crises as much as they were," Cochran says.

     The seed that nourished CIT was planted in the late 1980s. At the time officers were receiving approximately 8.5 hours of training on handling these potentially explosive situations. Then in 1987, the department responded to an emergency call where a mental patient, armed with a very large knife, was cutting himself and threatening both family members and neighbors. In the ensuing encounter with police, the individual was shot and killed. A public outcry ensued.

     "Many felt the Memphis Police Department could have handled it better," Cochran admits.

     From this encounter grew a task force composed of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), specialists from the University of Tennessee and Memphis State University's medical schools, officers, families and those afflicted with mental illness (also called consumers).

     "The task force explored the option of a mobile crisis team," Cochran says. That idea did not meet with favor and the reasons were obvious. Tried in other places, these teams are formed with permanent members and have a lengthy — as much as one to two hours — response time. Any officer who has answered a violent call involving an out-of-control mental patient knows it's all about rapid response. Instead, it was decided to train officers department-wide, partnering with other resources in the community, and ensuring that CIT members are ready, available and working around the clock.

     Implemented in 1988, the selection process was narrowed to include officers, who not only showed an interest in the program, but were suited to the demands of CIT. Successful candidates needed to possess good judgment skills and, says Cochran, some also had family members with mental issues, giving them special, irreplaceable insight.

The nuts and bolts

     Cochran likes to emphasize that CIT isn't simply a law enforcement initiative.

     "A lot of people misunderstand the word 'team.' They think of a team of law enforcement officers, when it's really a team in the context of community partnerships," he says.

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