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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.

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These pilot programs are extremely limited in terms of how many individuals they can reach each day. That's why many police agencies want all their officers to take the forty-hour CIT training course. The local training, which is held in Oakland, is in such high demand that each police agency in the county can only send three officers at a time. Oakland, the county's biggest department, gets to send five. "I need a ballroom with one hundred seats to be able to accommodate everyone," Neff said. "Right now, we're heavily, heavily overbooked. We have a lot of people who can't even get into the training from our own county, let alone outside of the county."

So far, roughly 130 members of OPD have taken the course. At the current rate of five officers who complete the training each month, it would take about a decade to train the entire 700-plus member department.

Michael Leonesio, a former police officer, Taser safety expert, and use-of-force consultant for various Bay Area police departments, said he doesn't think agencies are committed to the training, because if they were, there would be more funding for it. "Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, it's just looked at as liability insurance," he said. "So they can say, 'Yeah, we sent a CIT officer [on a mental health-related call], and yeah it went bad, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.'"

Defense attorney Michael Haddad, who has been involved in a number of deadly police use-of-force cases in the Bay Area, said he doesn't think police response to the mentally ill has gotten much better, even with more training. "It's not something exotic, or like we're asking something too much of police," Haddad said. "Paramedics, social workers, special ed teachers — they all receive similar training, and it works. There's the toolkit analogy, but if the only tool you ever use is a gun, it's not doing much good at the bottom of the toolkit."

When Mario Woods was shot by police officers late last year while he was armed with a knife in San Francisco's Bayview District, three of the five officers on the scene had received CIT training. According to San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, more training wouldn't have changed the officers' response. "You can't expect an officer, CIT trained or not ... if the person is actively engaging in seriously injuring, or attempting to kill somebody, you've got to make sure that stops first," Suhr said.

Some police watchdog groups also don't think that more training is the solution. In fact, they believe police should not be the first responders to calls involving people with mental health issues. "I don't think we should be relying on police to deliver mental health services," said Andrea Pritchett, an activist with Berkeley Copwatch. "I believe police need training to manage a difficult situation, but I don't think they'll ever be a replacement for a professional therapist or a professional mental health expert."


Another drawback of police training is that there is no concrete evidence that it actually works. Amy Watson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has been studying Crisis Intervention Training for years, acknowledges that there hasn't been evidence-based research to prove that it's effective. Nonetheless, she contends that CIT is a best practice model for law enforcement. She noted that research in some police agencies has associated CIT training with reduction in arrests and police use of force for people with mental illness. "It may reduce use of force, depending on what study you look at," Watson said. "So, it seems like a reasonable way to go."

Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving policing through research, added that he thinks police have no choice but to embrace CIT, because there is no better training program available. "The police don't have the option of waiting years to study a program," he said. "People are calling 911, and the police have to respond. You don't have the luxury to wait years for a scientific evaluation. If CIT is the best model you can find, then you use it."

Joel Fay, a retired police officer who has taught CIT classes in about fifteen counties in California, said he knows it's not the perfect solution, but argues that there are many issues beyond police training that are playing a role in making the situation worse. "What about the politicians who refuse to make mental health laws tougher so we can hold people longer? What about the substance abuse programs that don't have enough beds?" he asked. "All those systems have failed, and we'll keep responding, but unless the system changes, the number of calls will continue, and there will still be bad outcomes, even with the best of training."

Mary Hogden, however, is convinced that more police training will help. During training sessions in Oakland she gives police officers tips on how respond to a person in crisis.

"Talk to me in a calm voice, and tell me what you're going to do to me, step by step," she explained to officers during a recent training session. "Ask me what's going on. Sometimes people in crisis can't understand what the officer is saying. We have so much noise going on in our brain. Don't take what I say personally."

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