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Mental Health 911

Police are increasingly on the frontlines of dealing with people with psychiatric problems. But they're often not adequately trained to de-escalate potentially violent encounters.



Mary Hogden was outside a New Mexico convenience store in 2004 when police officers approached her. She was homeless and in the middle of a psychiatric episode. One of the cops asked to search her, saying she was loitering near the store, but she refused his request. "The police officer became very angry and upset," she recalled in a recent interview. "He ended up throwing me on the ground, putting my hands behind my back with handcuffs. He dragged me across the parking lot. He hurt me. He psychically hurt me."

Later, Hogden went to an abandoned trailer and attempted to set it ablaze. The officers who arrived on the scene took her to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. After she was released, she hitchhiked to the Bay Area. But not long after arriving here, she had another breakdown. Once again, the first person to evaluate her mental health and take her to the emergency room was a cop.

Hogden's story is becoming increasingly common. Over the past few decades, cuts to mental health services and programs have put police on the frontlines of dealing with people with psychiatric problems. Law enforcement data shows that police interactions with mentally ill people have skyrocketed in recent years, particularly in the East Bay. And sometimes those encounters turn deadly.

In 2015, a quarter of the nearly 1,000 people killed by police officers in the United States had a history of mental illness, according to a Washington Post analysis. The large numbers of killings by cops nationwide have also highlighted the lack of police training. Currently, the typical American police officer receives only eight hours of training on how to de-escalate tense situations, and just eight hours learning about dealing with people who have mental health issues. By contrast, police cadets receive an average of sixty hours of training on how to handle and shoot guns.

In recent years, some police departments have been working harder to teach cops how to prevent volatile situations from escalating. And a new state law requires California police academy recruits to receive at least fifteen hours of behavioral health training. Prior to the law's passage, they were required to have only six.

These days, Hogden helps provide training to East Bay police officers on coping with and helping people with mental health problems. Experts say that more such training is necessary, but they warn that most departments are still not doing nearly enough to prevent violent interactions between police and the mentally ill.

Following the nationwide shutdown of mental health hospitals in the Sixties and early Seventies, police began encountering more severely mentally ill individuals on the street. In 1967, the Lanterman–Petris–Short Act gave police in California the power to take an individual to the hospital against his or her will if a cop believes a person is dangerous.

By the Eighties, many mental health experts viewed deinstitutionalization as a major failure. According to estimates in the late Eighties from the National Institute of Mental Health, between 125,000 to 300,000 severely mentally ill individuals were living on the streets.

One shooting-death in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 brought the issue into sharp focus. Memphis police responded to a call about a mentally ill man with a large knife cutting himself and threatening his family. Officers arrived and then shot and killed the man. Community members demanded a change in the way police responded to and understood mental illness. One year later, the city introduced Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a forty-hour crash course on de-escalation techniques and dealing with people with mental illnesses.

"It takes a crisis before people wake up. So things go along, and until something bad happens, people don't put pressure to change," said Thomas Kirchberg, a director at Crisis Intervention Training International, a nonprofit devoted to spreading CIT training to other agencies. "We go along until it's on our front door step, and then we have to do something about it."

Other police departments have slowly followed, and now more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies nationwide offer the Memphis model of CIT training. But there are still no federal or state laws requiring CIT training, and many states only have one or two counties that provide the training on a voluntary basis. In 2001, the San Francisco Police Department adopted its own version of CIT training. San Mateo County followed in 2005, and by 2011, Alameda County launched its CIT training course.

But it wasn't until last year, when the Washington Post and the Guardian began reporting the number of people shot by police in the United States each month that state legislatures started to seriously push for mandatory mental health training requirements for police. Last year, the California Legislature enacted Senate Bill 29, which requires field training officers to receive twelve hours of behavioral health training. Separate legislation — SB 11 — increased mental health training hours in police academies from six to fifteen hours.

"It's just a way of reducing problems like we saw in Ferguson, in Chicago, in Cleveland — all those situations we read about where we wonder why the officers acted the way they did," said Senator Jim Beall, D-Campbell, referring to officer-involved killings. Beall sponsored the two Senate bills. "In the academy, you weed out bad candidates, so we're hoping to weed out candidates who are not up to dealing with people with mental health issues."

Beall said in an interview that he wanted to double the number of mental health training hours required in his legislation but that the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, which sets the requirements, opposed his plan.