Program aims to improve police interactions with people with mental illness

Thursday, November 13, 2008 | 10:07 p.m. CST; updated 10:51 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 26, 2009

COLUMBIA — Over the next few months, the Columbia Police Department will implement a new training and community relations program to improve police interactions with people with mental illness, a group that poses significant challenges to officers and the criminal justice system.

The Crisis Intervention Team model, as the program is known around the country, trains police officers to more effectively deal with people with mental illnesses. It also encourages collaboration between police departments, the courts, the mental health care system and residents.

Last week, three Columbia police officers attended the National CIT Conference in Atlanta to learn how to start a program locally. With more than 1,200 officers from across the U.S. and the world in attendance, Columbia police had plenty of opportunities to learn from the experiences of other departments.

“We saw that our communities all have similar issues dealing with mental illness,” said Sgt. Dianne Bernhard, who attended the conference and will spearhead Columbia’s initial effort, with support from Sgts. Roger Allen and Ken Gregory. The trip was funded through a grant from the Missouri CIT Council.

The CIT model, sometimes called the “Memphis model,” was created 20 years ago in Memphis, Tenn., in response to an incident in which a police officer shot and killed a man with a mental illness. The incident led the Memphis Police Department to seek out mental health experts to improve police training and procedures related to mental illness.

CIT guidelines call for each participating officer to receive 40 hours of training before being certified. Officers learn de-escalation techniques, how to recognize specific mental illnesses and where to bring people for treatment. They also meet and talk with people who have mental illnesses.

Police say the CIT training is helpful because officers are often the first to respond to people experiencing a psychiatric crisis. The Columbia Police Department doesn’t have statistics on crimes involving people with mental illnesses, but Bernhard said, “It’s a common occurrence.”

Nationally, 5 to 7 percent of all police responses involve people with mental illnesses, according to the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project of the Council of State Governments. As an extreme example, the NYPD responds to calls involving people with a mental illness every six minutes.

An increasing number of police departments across the country are turning to the CIT model, Bernhard said, as they recognize the need to better deal with people with mental illnesses. “This is a nationwide tend,” she said.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, there are approximately 400 CIT programs operating nationwide. St. Louis and Kansas City already have programs, and Springfield is in the process of creating one.

“I’ve been a law enforcement officer for 35 years, and this is possibly the best training for law enforcement I’ve ever seen,” said Sgt. Barry Armfield, the St. Louis Area CIT Police Coordinator. Since the first CIT trainings were held in St. Louis County in 2002, 1,400 officers from 45 different police departments have been trained, he said.

Columbia police first considered implementing the CIT program two years ago, when former Chief Randy Boehm sent two officers for training in St. Louis. But the department got sidetracked with other priorities at the time, and the program never took off, Bernhard said.

Boehm learned about the program from Tim Harlan, president of the Columbia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which strongly supports crisis intervention teams. Harlan said he is encouraged that the department plans to implement the program, and that he hopes to be involved in the planning process.

“This is a program that many other departments have had positive results with,” Harlan said. “Even officers who didn’t think it was going to work now support it.”

Bernhard doesn’t know exactly what Columbia’s CIT program will look like at this point, but she expects it to take shape over the next few months. “This is definitely something we’re going forward with,” she said. The department decided to implement the program now in part because of input from community members who recommended the program, Bernhard said, but “the seed was planted long ago.”

She plans to meet next week with Stacey Crane, Boone County Mental Health Court administrator, to discuss the next steps. The program will be funded through the department’s training budget, but Bernhard also said she hopes some of the trainers will offer their services for free.

The first meeting of Columbia’s CIT Council will be held in December. As outlined in the CIT guidelines, the council should include representatives from the police department, the mental health court, mental health providers and the community at large. Its purpose is to guide the program’s start  up and continued operations, and to ensure collaboration between the police department and other relevant groups. The specific members of Columbia’s council have not been selected yet, Bernhard said.

By February, Bernhard hopes to introduce the CIT model to all patrol officers and ask for volunteers for the program. Those officers who are selected will undergo the 40-hour training and receive their CIT certification, along with a lapel pin to distinguish them from other officers. CIT guidelines normally call for 20 percent of the patrol force to be certified. Bernhard expects to have at least two CIT officers on each shift. How the officers will be used in the field will be determined in upcoming meetings, she said.

The police department expects the program to benefit officers, the mentally ill, and the community as a whole. Officers currently have no specific training on dealing with people with mental illnesses, Bernhard said, and so are not always best equipped to handle crisis situations. The department does have a Crisis Negotiations Team, but Bernhard said it is much different from the CIT program because it is a specialized unit that focuses on hostage and barricade situations and does not have regular patrol duties.

The San Jose, Calif.,Police Department reported a 32 percent decrease in officer injuries over a one-year period after implementing the CIT program, according to the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project of the Council of State Governments. Shortly after Memphis implemented its CIT program, injuries to individuals with mental illnesses caused by police decreased by nearly 40 percent.

The collaborative nature of the CIT model also helps to channel people with mental illnesses away from jail and toward treatment through a a process known as diversion, Bernhard said. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 450,000 people with a recent history of mental illness are incarcerated in U.S. jails or prisons, 24 percent of state prison inmates and 21 percent of local jail inmates.

The Columbia Police Department will have an alternative to incarceration for some of the people with mental illnesses it responds to by working closely with the mental health court and mental health providers. Bernhard said the CIT program will help to “decriminalize” mental illness for some of these individuals, particularly non-violent offenders.

One of the most noticeable effects of the CIT program in St. Louis County has been a decrease in arrests. Of the 150 CIT incidents the county averages each month, 89 percent of the suspects end up receiving treatment at a hospital rather than going to jail, Armfield said.

“Without CIT, those numbers would be just the opposite.”

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Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 3:50 a.m.

And one more win for the concerned citizens of Columbia and around the nation.

Skeptics = 0

Concerned Citizens = 2

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 14, 2008 | 10:37 a.m.

You do realize that the Taser will be the preferred weapon for a CIT team, if negotiations fail?



(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 11:48 a.m.

Not necessarily Mark Foecking (a.k.a. dooberheim) but this is an obvious area that you have no educational back round in but are here just to get citizens in an uproar due to as I said your educational abilities on this issue do not come from any type of experience as a whole.

You post one link....big whoopppie. Don't you think that these C.I.T. teams know alot more than you or I? Obviously you do not.

Your blatantly wild conjectures hold no weight against the over all information from other Crisis Intervention Teams freely available across the internet and also by contacting them.

Before you criticize the new C.I.T. team here in Columbia by your blatant ignorance of posting as you did above why don't you give them a chance to show the public and to hold open public forums to talk about the issues related to this new team,how it works,how it can work and the good it will do in the future.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 14, 2008 | 1:04 p.m.

You haven't shown what they would use instead. There are several more links I could posts here if I wanted - google "CIT taser" (without the quotes) for quite a few.

Police are not there to administer psychotherapy. They are there to defuse dangerous situations, and in the case of mental illness, to get the person to help. There will be violent subjects which are not able to be "talked down", no matter how much CIT training police have had. Would you rather the CIT officer shoots or beats them if he is attacked?


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 1:42 p.m.

Mark Foecking you have absolutely no real education in this issue at all do you? Have you actually talked to disability advocates who are campaigning for change on this issue? Have you talked to other disabled citizens on this issue>? Have you talked to doctors who treat the mentally ill as their expertise on this issue?

All you can obviously come up with are uneducated conjectures Mark Foecking so your comments hold no weight at all.

As I said before you go slamming the new program,which it is quite obvious you lack a real education about go and ask professionals first how they feel on the issue of Tasers being used upon the mentally ill when other alternative methods can possibly be used.

In fact since you are so concerned why don't you show yourself up at the next City of Columbia Disability Advisory Commission Meeting and ask them how they feel about Tasers being used against the Mentally Ill. I doubt you have the accountability to show up.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 14, 2008 | 2:01 p.m.

No, I won't, Chuck, because I'm not convinced you have the emotional stability to remain calm. I see no reason to put myself in a position where I have to defend myself physically.

I AM NOT SLAMMING THE NEW PROGRAM, dammit. I think it's great that officers will get training in new techniques to defuse situations, some involving the mentally ill, without resorting to force. This is what it's all about.

What I am pointing out is the CIT team members will carry Tasers for their own protection (if they are allowed). All the crisis intervention techniques in the world may not work against some subjects, and some of them will attack officers, or others, and will require the use of force. That force, more often than not, is likely to be the Taser (better than a gun, right?). Merely having a CIT does not means that they will never have to use force against a subject. Am I making myself clear?

Calm down...


(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 14, 2008 | 2:05 p.m.

Also witness this quote from the article - not all officers will be trained in this program, so it's not necessarily the great panacea Chuck is convinced of (not slamming the program as he probably thinks, but stating a fact):

"By February, Bernhard hopes to introduce the CIT model to all patrol officers and ask for volunteers for the program. Those officers who are selected will undergo the 40-hour training and receive their CIT certification, along with a lapel pin to distinguish them from other officers. CIT guidelines normally call for 20 percent of the patrol force to be certified. Bernhard expects to have at least two CIT officers on each shift. How the officers will be used in the field will be determined in upcoming meetings, she said."

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 4:45 p.m.

Mark Foecking who said anything about physical violence? See once again you take my words out of context and you have never met me nor talked to me in real life away from the internet.

Once again you show your ignorance beyond reproach.

I think you are the one that needs to cal down and actually get an education so you know exactly what you are talking about on this issue.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 4:49 p.m.

John Schultz correct but statistics I have seen of the many law enforcement agencies with information available do portray this program as one that does work and can work but it takes a special quality of officer to be able to handle all that it involves.

Not just any officer is cut out for this duty that is a fact as alot of officers just do not have the real dedication it takes.

Go study the many many law enforcement agency web sites who have this program in operation.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 14, 2008 | 4:51 p.m.

The meeting I attended 3 months ago, with the St. Louis CIT training officer, conveyed that the use of any weapon is diminished significantly in "emotional/psychiatric/mentally ill/under-the-influence" scenarios, with a CIT team. It is especially useful in suicidal situations, where the mere presence of a "traditional cop" may actually serve to escalate the situatation for the depressed person and manifest fear, hatred, mania and/or fight/flight responses.
CIT understands the "sick person's" frame of mind and will handle the situation as "humanely" as possible.
Also, the penal system and health professionals will work in tandem to address the "patients" needs and consequences.
This will keep certain people away from the "violent career criminal" found in our jails and give them an opportunity to get medical help, treatment and therapy for their imbalance.
CIT will also work in "domestic disputes" where emotions can enrage people to "criminal" behaviors.
Even the best of us may become "temporarily insane" on occasion.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 14, 2008 | 6:39 p.m.

Thanks ray shapiro for your posting on this issue and also your advocacy help here in Columbia and also in Boone County.

Your postings go along way in helping to educate the citizens on these issues where citizens might not be informed nor understand how these programs work.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley December 28, 2008 | 7:57 a.m.

If the "21 foot rule" is broken in a crisis negotiations situation, and the Officer feels that he or she is being threatened, the Taser will be used. It IS in fact the model defensive device of choice for this type of a situation:

Appropriate Weapons for Dealing with the Mentally Ill

Since police training bureaus now know and teach about the 21’ Rule (whereby a person with an edged weapon can traverse this distance and stab you before you can un-snap your holster, draw your weapon and fire) it seems the mentally ill having been shot in ever increasing numbers. The edged weapon seems to be their weapon for self defense choice. And, in their delusion they ignore an officer’s command to stay back, and when they violate the 21’ space and become a legitimate life threat to the officer he/she has little choice in the matter.

In Akron, CIT officers carry a taser that shoots out probes that will go 21’. It has proven itself time and again and prevented officer’s from living with the memory of having to take the life of someone who was sick. No matter how dangerous the person was, when you shoot a mentally ill person you are never a hero. Someone is always there to say what a shame it was and what a nice person he/she was when on their medication. Wasn’t there something else the police could have done? Did they really have to use deadly force?

Lieutenant Michael S. Woody – Retired: was the Director of Training for the Akron Police Department. The Akron Police Department received $1.3 million dollars from the federal government to start up this program. Of the 18,500 police departments across the country that have grants Akron was picked as one of 500 that are being showcased as “Best Use of Funds”. Lt. Woody received the national “The Major Sam Cochran Award for Compassion in Law Enforcement” in 2002 and “The Heart of Gold Award” in 2001 from the Mental Health Board of Summit County. He is currently affiliated with the Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown, Ohio and may be reached at:

And he is on: The Supreme Court of Ohio Advisory Committee on Mentally Ill in the Courts.

(Report Comment)

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