Mental Health Training for Police Officers Helps Defuse Crises

An impromptu memorial in Isla Vista, Calif. for a victim of the mass shooting May 23, 2014. (Diane Block/KQED)

An impromptu memorial in Isla Vista, Calif. for a victim of the mass shooting May 23, 2014. Incidents such as these have raised the issue of how well law enforcement officers are trained to deal with people with severe mental illness. (Diane Block/KQED)

By Stephanie O’Neill

Debbie is a Ventura County mother of a 23-year-old son diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At times his condition becomes so severe that he gets delusional and requires hospitalization.

“They weren’t threatening; they didn’t scare him. It stayed really, really calm.”
“He doesn’t understand that he’s ill and that he needs help,” Debbie says. “He thinks he’s fine.”

Debbie, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, says when that happens, she calls the sheriff’s department for help — as she did earlier this year. Their response, she says, was heartening.

“The police officers … were so great, because they kept telling him, ‘You’re not in trouble, we’re here to help you,’ ” she says. “So they weren’t threatening; they didn’t scare him. It stayed really, really calm.”

And that allowed the deputies to take Debbie’s son to the county psychiatric hospital for emergency observation without incident.

“As far as a bad experience goes, it was as good a bad experience as was possible in this situation,” she says.

Among the responding deputies were several who had received special training in what’s known as a “Crisis Intervention Team” program or CIT.  In the training, the deputies had learned how to better handle people suffering from mental illness. The training is based on a renowned model started in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 that is now taught internationally.

In the CIT training, first responders learn skills that have been shown to help in increasing jail diversion in people with mental illness and improve the likelihood that people will continue treatment with mental health professionals in the community. The training also resulted in decreased rates of injury among police officers.

Tragedies such as the Isla Vista mass-killings in late May; the 2011 beating death of a homeless man by police in Orange County and the recent video of a CHP officer repeatedly punching a woman who had run onto a Los Angeles freeway have raised the issue of how well police officers are trained to deal with people who are mentally ill.

California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) requires that all peace officers undergo a minimum of six hours of mental health training while in the academy.

The amount and type of additional training required by any agency, however, varies widely:

  • Orange County offers a 16-hour modified CIT program offered to law enforcement
  • San Diego Police and Sheriff Departments adopted a 24-hour Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) training
  • San Francisco Police Department as well as law enforcement agencies in Monterey and Ventura adopted a 40-hour CIT program

“The idea is to … deescalate and slow down the situation,” says Kiran Sahota, who oversees CIT training in Ventura County where 72 percent of officers have completed the program. “Sometimes by just knowing ahead of time that (law enforcement officers) are going to be listening and spending a little extra time, it really can defuse a situation.”

“Sometimes People Fall Through the Cracks”

But even so, breakdowns still happen.

In Debbie’s case, she says the Ventura County psychiatric hospital released her son before the end of his 14-day hold. Then while he was still in a delusional state, she says, he broke into a neighbor’s vacant house that he thought was his own. He was later arrested and now faces criminal charges.

“He’s never done anything illegal,” Debbie says. “If he was in his right mind, he would be mortified.”

A county spokeswoman says patient privacy laws prevent the hospital from commenting on the case.

“Sometimes people fall through the cracks,” said Devon Corpus, crisis supervisor for Monterey County and an expert in the field of Crisis Intervention Team training. “You might have officers that have received great training. They’re doing this good work and then they do a hand off to an agency, and there really isn’t a collaboration or team approach to that hand-off.”

“He was out of his mind. He began to bang his head on the wall, saying, ‘If you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to kill myself.'”
That may have been what happened late last year when Stephanie –- who also lives in Ventura County — called authorities for help with her 26-year-old son who has bipolar disorder.

Stephanie, whose last name was omitted for privacy reasons, says for several days prior to the incident, she and other family members had tried to get her then-suicidal son into a psychiatric hospital.

“But he hadn’t really acted up enough,” she said. “And you really have to essentially be out of your mind for them to take you without violating personal rights.”

Ultimately, her son had a fight with his father that became the grounds the family needed to make the call for help.

Crisis Intervention Team officers from the Ventura Police Department responded. As happened with Debbie’s son, Stephanie says, they were able to calm her son and the situation.

But the assault meant her son had to be booked into county jail before being transferred to the psychiatric hospital. Stephanie says the officers told her he would be in jail for just three or four hours before the transfer.

“So I went to bed for the first time in about six weeks with a peaceful mind,” says Stephanie. “‘Okay, this one’s done. He’s in the hospital. I know he doesn’t love it there, but he’s safe.'”

But, as it turned out, Stephanie says her son wasn’t in the hospital, or safe.

“He wound up being in the Ventura County Jail for 28 to 29 hours — no medication,” she said. “They stripped him naked because they thought he might kill himself, somehow, with his clothing. … So not only was he completely ashamed and out of his mind, he began to bang his head on the wall, saying, ‘If you don’t get me out of here, if you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to kill myself.'”

Stephanie says her son’s self-inflicted injuries left him with a severe concussion, a swollen face and two black eyes. A spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, says the agency could not comment on the case.

California Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) says stories like Stephanie’s and Debbie’s are a too-common byproduct of a fragmented and overcrowded mental health system.

“The issue of mental illness in the criminal justice system have gotten far too little attention and far too few resources,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg and other lawmakers introduced a series of budget proposals to address the needs of those with mental illness. While none creates a uniform standard for additional statewide training of law enforcement officers, one of the measures adopted in the new state budget provides $12 million to train law enforcement and prison personnel in better handling those with mental illness.

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  • Pamlyn Millsap

    Go Darrell… Humboldt County started a 40 hour CIT training in 2006. Eureka Police Department hired a social worker who goes out with the officers and helps identify appropriate support and services for people experiencing mental illness.