Crisis Intervention Training: An invaluable investment for law enforcement

In the aftermath of the recent Sandy Hook active shooter event in Connecticut, as well as other incidents across the country, the degree of awareness (and scrutiny) for signs and symptoms of mental instability has been heightened. 

The tragic outcome of the horrific set of events in Newtown provides an even greater impetus for law enforcement agencies to prepare, educate, and train their officers in crisis intervention skills so they can be proactive in recognizing indicators of potentially problematic individuals, deleterious circumstances, and potentially lethal situations.

In 1988, the Memphis Police Department established the first Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). In partnership with the Alliance for Mentally Ill (AMI), mental health providers, and two universities, the department organized, trained, and implemented a specialized unit within the department that worked closely with the community in responding to mental health crises.

The department became known for setting a standard of excellence with respect to the treatment of individuals with mental illness. 

Throughout the nation, other law enforcement agencies observed the successful outcomes achieved in Memphis. Some adopted the program to meet the needs of their own communities.

Yes, Virginia, CIT Works
In Virginia, the Alexandria Police and Alexandria Sheriffs’ Department are two agencies that did just that.

Highly-skilled and specially-trained officers — equipped with knowledge of basic crisis intervention, traumatic stress, substance abuse, mental health, liability and legal issues, suicide intervention, active listening, special populations, verbal de-escalation, and cultural diversity — comprise the Crisis Intervention Team. Through the 40 hours of specialized training they receive, these officers are able to deal with crisis situations.

CIT training is designed to educate and prepare police officers who come into contact with people with mental illness. They are keenly aware of the divergent issues facing people on the street and in their communities. Trained officers are capable of de-escalating a situation by their understanding and ability to relate to what the person is going through.

For law enforcement agencies, this training is an invaluable investment when officers are able to readily de-escalate a crisis and settle a situation on scene with appropriate skills and pertinent knowledge combined with compassion and understanding.

Moreover, such training tends to reduce the anxiety an officer faces with the situation, reduces the possibility for physical confrontation, and reduces the possibility of injury to the officers. It also minimizes the amount of time officers spend out of service awaiting assessment and disposition, and reduces inappropriate arrests.

Importantly, officers skilled in crisis intervention strategies are provided a protocol to bring individuals in crisis to a therapeutic location rather than a jail or law enforcement facility.

Folks in Need of Special Attention
“We see people in crisis all the time. This is a different program than any other program out there. This is about being human again in law enforcement,” said Sgt. Courtney Ballantine, Team Leader for the CIT Team of the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department.

Ballantine pointed out that it is important to choose the right officers to serve on the team. Officers have to be identified who are not only open minded but well respected within the department as well as the community.

Following the training, officers are reportedly energized, and they recognize that the training is practical, helpful, and it can be utilized effectively on the street.

“Officers literally leave saying this is the best training they’ve ever had,” Jonathan Teumer, Emergency Services Team Leader for the Alexandria Virginia Community Services Board, said.

He pointed out that these are veteran and tenured officers who are offering the praise.

Officer Joe Kirby of the Alexandria Police Department is well versed in utilizing his crisis intervention training. He once went on a call requiring that he check on the welfare of an individual. He was notified the man was in crisis. When Kirby arrived, he talked to him and discovered the man was depressed and an alcoholic.

He established trust and rapport with the man, and he utilized information he had learned from the CIT training. Kirby introduced the man to the director of the local detoxification program who did an outreach to him, and the man entered into treatment. Kirby returned to the man’s house several times to check on him and follow up.

This proved to be a success story that evolved out of Kirby’s CIT training.

“It’s definitely given me a broader view of mental illness and emotional disorders. It’s a good program. I’m thankful that I got the training. It helped me figure out where the resources are,” Kirby said.  

Lieutenant John Kapetanis of the Alexandria Sheriff’s Department, and a 30-year law enforcement veteran, works with operations command at the city courthouse.

“On occasion, we get folks in need of special attention. It’s valuable to know where these people are coming from,” he said.

He agrees with Kirby that the training was valuable. “It was, by far, the best training I’ve ever had. I was impressed. It was just outstanding,” Kapetanis said.

The training provides information on knowing what to do and who to contact. A significant portion of the training focuses on learning how to actively listen and how to talk to people. The legal component provides officers information on knowing what they legally can and cannot do.

This training is particularly helpful with special populations that encompass the homeless, intellectually disabled, and children in crisis, among others, as well as populations unique to specific communities. Officers are provided the flexibility in knowing how to apply the training they received in the most effective way.

The proactive approach to dealing with problems in the community with the assistance of CIT trained police officers serves as a successful strategy to eliminate problems that could potentially escalate to violence and victimization. 

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