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Police Departments Say They're Working to Include Mental Health Professionals

Police officer.

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Key Takeaways

  • Some police departments are employing mental health workers to accompany officers on calls.
  • These employees may be social workers or mental health therapists.
  • This program has been in place in many departments for over 30 years, and still shows minimal signs of decreasing violence.

Last month's fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man in Philadelphia, brought a resurgence of demands for an overhaul of the way communities in the U.S. respond to mental health crises. Wallace's family says he struggled with mental illness. In 2018, about 1,000 people in the United States were fatally shot by police, with 25% of those people living with mental illness.

Nearly 29.7 million people live in what’s become known as medical deserts—areas with few trauma care options—and often don’t often have a choice of who to call during a mental health crisis. For those residents, if a loved one needs urgent mental health assistance, the nearest hospital might be 50 miles away. Seconds count in these situations, and the time crunch leaves people with few options. Consequently, 7% to 10% of 911 calls every year involve people living with mental illness, forcing officers to become de facto counselors.

As a result, thousands of police departments around the country have adopted Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs, which pair officers with mental health professionals for applicable calls, as well as provide mental health training for officers. The program, which launched in 1988 as “The Memphis Model,” has two goals:

  1. Improve officer and consumer safety
  2. Help people with mental disorders and/or addictions access medical treatment rather than place them in the criminal justice system due to illness-related behaviors.

These teams have been around for more than 30 years and have been incorporated into more than 2,700 departments. To this day, CIT programs remain the dominant model for addressing mental health calls within the police department. But there are still questions about the success of this widely-adopted model.

What This Means For You

Police calls involving people with mental illnesses can be difficult for all involved: the caller, the police officer, and the person experiencing a mental crisis. Crisis Intervention Teams aim to reduce the number of arrests of people experiencing great mental distress. By preventing those arrests, injuries may be prevented, and clinicians can offer referrals to people living with mental health disorders. If experiencing a mental health crisis, consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

How the Program Works

The Brookhaven Police Department in Georgia recently piloted a similar mental health program in their city, adding two mental health professionals to the department just last month.

David T. Snively, the lieutenant of the Brookhaven Police Department, tells Verywell that more than half of the department's officers are trained in the Georgia Crisis Intervention Training program, which is a curriculum designed in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC).

“This program is a co-responder model, with clinicians responding with or at the request of police officers on a given scene," Snively says.

The CIT programs involve 40 hours of training to inform officers about several mental health issues. The sessions, often led by mental health professionals, are designed to help officers make decisions in the field. “This training equips officers to identify calls for which a clinician might be well suited, and our program allows that officer to summon a clinician directly to the scene,” he says.

Officers spend about 80% of their patrol work on what’s called service work, which can mean mediation or responding to a family dispute where no crime occurred. The addition of clinicians and social workers to the police force can provide services to community residents like crisis intervention, mediation, and mental health care referrals. Including these professionals also typically includes training and mental health services for police officers.

The majority of the CIT training centers on ways officers can de-escalate a heightened situation; a person experiencing a mental health crisis may not respond to an officer’s requests in the way others might. CIT informs officers about mental illness while reducing the risk of injury for both the officer and the individual with mental illness. The techniques can also lead to fewer arrests, which are not ideal, as people with mental health disorders may refuse or defer treatment upon arrest, which could cause their condition to worsen and create further episodes.

How Effective Are CIT Programs?

A 2011 study found the percentage of arrests during a CIT call to be between 0% to 7%, with the number declining the longer the program had been in place. The study went on to conclude between 10% and 23% of arrests were avoided in CIT-implemented departments. But the goal of CIT programs is to improve officer and citizen safety, which can be difficult to quantify.

“We added our police social worker early last year. She has been a tremendous asset to the department and the community," Michael Diekhoff, chief of police for the Bloomington, Indiana Police Department, tells Verywell. "The work she does has expanded each month. Many of her calls are from those who have reached out to her without the involvement of an officer. Our goal was [to see if] she could help those who we have repeated calls on. The data is showing she is having an impact on reducing the repeat calls we have on some people.”

Some studies have shown only a small difference between CIT-trained officers and untrained officers in relation to patient referrals. Studies find that CIT interventions have not shown a consistent reduction in the risk of mortality or death during emergency police interactions.

While the effectiveness of CIT programs remains inconclusive at best, there are other programs in place that help respond to individuals struggling with their mental health or illness.

Mental Health America released a report suggesting alternatives to police intervention for mental health issues.

"Many of the problems associated with police involvement in behavioral health crises can be avoided by creating alternatives," the report said. "A law enforcement response to a mental health crisis is almost always stigmatizing for people with mental illnesses and should be avoided when possible."

Some of these alternatives include:

  • Mobile crisis response teams: Made up of mental health professionals, community health workers, and/or peers, these teams can respond and refer individuals in crisis to appropriate resources.
  • Peer-run crisis respite: Peer-run crisis programs are places where people can connect with peers with lived experience of mental health conditions.
  • Psychiatric urgent care clinics: These clinics are the same as other urgent care clinics, but are specially trained to attend to mental health and substance use needs. 
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Article Sources
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