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.”