Police Look for Better Ways to Respond to Mentally Ill Suspects

Training Program Set Up for Officers to Deal With Mentally Ill

As more and more high-profile confrontations between police and citizens tighten the focus on the ways that law enforcement officers respond to potentially dangerous situations, police departments are looking for ways to improve the skills of their personnel. One of the areas of significant concern involves how police officers deal with potential suspects who may have some degree of mental illness.

Law enforcement officers nationwide agree that the incidences of officers responding to a situation involving a mentally unstable suspect have increased dramatically over the last 30 years. In the 1980s, when state and federal funding to mental illness was substantially cut back, many mental health institutions were forced to close. As a result, many persons who would have been institutionalized were put on the streets. Unfortunately, this is still what happens to all but those with the most advanced degrees of mental illness.

More and more, police find themselves confronted with a potential suspect who has difficulty functioning in civilized society. For most officers, training in mental health issues and response to mentally ill suspects is either completely lacking or minimal. Now some departments are trying to change that.

In a program called Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, law enforcement officers spend a week learning both how to recognize different types and degrees of mental illness, and strategies for calming individuals who may feel threatened or inclined to violence. The program arose in the aftermath of the death of a Memphis, Tennessee, man in the late 1980s. It focuses on compassion and attention, teaching an officer to convey an understanding, but also to identify ways out of a situation, should it escalate quickly.

The curriculum for the training was developed in conjunction with providers of mental health services. It is now used regularly at more than 3,000 precincts nationwide.

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