Dealing with the mentally ill has always been a difficult task for law enforcement personnel. This task has only become more difficult with increasing populations in urban and suburban areas, fewer resources for the mentally ill, and an increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with mental illness. As such, police have contact with greater numbers of people with mental health issues, and have fewer resources available to deal with them. Frequently, police officers encounter mentally ill people who have not committed a crime, or the crime was of a petty, non-violent nature. Many times in the past, this segment of the population was incarcerated, often times due to the fact there was no other option available to deal with them. Studies have shown that incarcerating low-level, non-violent offenders with mental illness was both unnecessary and counterproductive, as well as a huge burden on the jail system.
In an effort to provide police officers with the tools to safely and sensitively deal with mentally ill people, the Memphis, Tennessee Police Department developed Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for their officers. Working in cooperation with representatives from community mental health centers, hospitals and other criminal justice entities, the Memphis PD developed system-wide changes to help address the needs of the mentally ill. Due to the success of that program, CIT training has been implemented across the nation.Colorado, and the Littleton Police Department, has been involved with the CIT program for several years. Colorado is unique in it’s involvement with CIT in that it has implemented Crisis Intervention Teams on a multi-jurisdictional basis, having at least 63 law enforcement agencies in 14 counties involved across the state. In Colorado, there is a statewide CIT task force which is operated out of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, as opposed to the focus being on one community, as is the case in other states.
To become a CIT officer, officers participate in an intensive 40 hour training class, which revolves heavily around role-playing exercises where professional actors and actresses are used to play the part of the mentally ill subjects. The training is also comprised of site visits to local mental health centers and treatment facilities, meetings with mental health professionals, family members of mentally ill people, and “consumers” of mental health services. The vast majority of officers that participated in the training reported that it is some of the most challenging, and rewarding, training they have experienced during their career.
The Littleton Police Department currently has 20 CIT trained officers. Whenever practical, these officers respond to incidents involving individuals experiencing crisis due to mental illness. Upon contact with the subject, these officers use their skills in communicating with the mentally ill to determine the nature of their crisis, what can be done to assist them, and provide them with access to community services, if needed. Many times, the end result of the contact is a voluntary commitment to a hospital or mental health facility. In some cases, the officer, if he or she can determine the subject is an immediate threat to himself or others or is gravely disabled, can place the subject on an emergency mental health hold. Under these circumstances, the officer has the authority to take the person into custody, using whatever reasonable force is necessary, and have the person transported to the hospital for an evaluation by the appropriate mental health provider.
Involvement in the Crisis Intervention Team program has been a hugely positive experience for the Littleton Police Department. The skills learned during the training have proven to be very valuable in dealing with the mentally ill, as well as with the public at large. The feedback the police department has received from mentally ill patients, as well as mental health professionals, has been very positive, with them expressing that the officers were appropriate and sensitive in their dealing with the person in crisis. Statewide, the CIT effort has diverted from the justice system approximately 96 percent of individuals involved in calls for services reported to the Officer of Research and Statistics by CIT officers. The Littleton Police Department plans to continue it’s involvement in this very successful and valuable program.