Educating police on mental illness could reform law enforcement


Hunter Frint

The New York Times recently wrote an article that focused on the reformation of the Portland Police Department in response to a changing outlook on mental illness. The way that police are handling situations with people who are mentally ill is changing along with national stigmas of mental illness.

The story that the New York Times began with described a situation where police decided to “disengage” rather than take action with a man who was mentally ill and wielded a sword on a public beach.

This story paints a completely different picture of police forces than is commonly thought of today. With all of the media attention on police brutality, a successful situation where informed and trained police officers decide to be non-aggressive provides a stark dissimilarity.

A correlation between those with mental illness and those shot by police is astounding. The New York Times reported that according to various analyses, 25 percent or more of people fatally shot by police have a mental disorder.

The percentages increase when you look into the United States incarceration systems. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among the inmates who reported mental illness, 54 percent of local jail inmates are recorded as having symptoms of mania, 30 percent have major depression and 24 percent have severe mental disorders that include delusions and/or hallucinations.

There are also large numbers of prisoners with mental illnesses at the state prison and federal prison levels. Incarceration is not the form of help and rehabilitation that these people need. The public and police forces are seeing this and trying to get to the root of the problem.

“In response to public outcry, many police departments have, like Portland, turned to more training for their officers, in many cases adopting some version of a model pioneered in Memphis almost three decades ago and known as crisis intervention team training, or CIT,” stated the article in the New York Times.

CIT has been used to blanket train entire police squads or train specific officers who specialize in handling situations regarding people suffering from mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), CIT programs have been implemented in over 2,700 communities to help deal with issues such as where an officer should take a person for mental health treatment and how to prevent explosive situations.

CIT training and those programs like it provide officers with 40 hours of training. Officers learn verbal de-escalation skills from mental health professionals and personally meet with people who have been involved in mental health crises and have recovered. They also participate in scenario-based training.

“The training is great, but it’s not magic,” Laura Usher, coordinator of crisis intervention team training for NAMI told the New York Times. “The thing that actually transforms the way the system works is when everyone gets together.”

Not all, but some police forces, like the one in Portland, are seeing changes due to the shift in focus from strictly enforcing the law to understanding mental illness. Officer Brad Yakots told the New York Times that the way the incident with the man on the beach was handled was a sign of change.

“Ten years ago, we would have been more proactive in dealing with him at the start,” Officer Yakots said to the New York Times. “It’s a new way of looking at it.”

As CIT and other training programs like it are put in place in more cities throughout the nation, there is likely to be a decrease in violent confrontation between the police and those who suffer from mental illness.


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