Police to train on handling mental health emergencies – The Republic

While several advocates are calling for reallocating some funds from law enforcement to other services, police departments across America are taking steps to improve their understanding of people with mental illness.

The number of U.S. law enforcement agencies now engaged in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) has now risen to about 2,800 — and the number keeps growing.

CIT teaches officers how to handle mental health emergencies with an emphasis on de-escalating potentially dangerous situations. Participants learn about the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, as well as the psychiatric medications used to treat different mental health conditions.

In Columbus, several law enforcement agencies will spend the entire first week of November in CIT at the Evolution Training Center, 2670 Verhulst Street.

Participants will include Columbus Police Department officers, deputies from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s office, full-time officers from the town of Hope, and members of the new Columbus Regional Health Police Dept.

The need to have officers specifically trained in handling mental illness is not just for high-risk calls, Columbus Police spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said. It’s training that might be needed on any call, because police never know what will happen in any situation.

“There’s a need for officers who are better trained to handle these calls, which we are having more of,” Harris said.

Several studies and organizations back up what the CPD spokesman is saying. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states that anywhere from 5 to 15% of calls made to law enforcement agencies involve an individual struggling with mental illness. These calls may include a missing person, criminal activity, erratic behavior, or even someone threatening to harm themselves or others.

A study commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that during the last half of 2020, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. began experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder due largely to COVID-19 and the economic downturn. That’s up substantially from 1 in 10 adults from January to June, 2019, the foundation study shows.

When confronting a person experiencing a mental health crisis, it “necessitates an officer to make difficult judgments about the mental state and intent of the individual and necessitates the use of special skills, techniques, and abilities to effectively and appropriately resolve the situation,” according to a statement issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Such training may be invaluable in preventing unnecessary deaths, as well as preventing litigation.

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times likelier to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a recent study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

The center’s statement goes on to say that “it is essentially the goal of a police officer to de-escalate the situation safely for all individuals involved when reasonable and consistent with established safety priorities.”

Substituting police officers with social workers or mental health experts at crime scenes does not seem like a wise alternative to Harris.

“The fact is there are so many unknowns, with some calls unexpectedly becoming very volatile and violent,” the CPD spokesman said. “It’s certainly nothing we want to send a civilian into because we just don’t know how someone might react — especially if they are armed with a weapon.”

Officers should be guided by their training when they attempt to determine whether a person’s behavior is indicative of a mental health crisis, according to the police chiefs association. Guidance, techniques, response options and resources should be taught, so a situation may be resolved in as constructive, safe, and humane a manner as possible, the association states.

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