People suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may become violent and even suicidal. Medication and therapy may curb erratic behavior, but if a person has never been to treatment — or has stopped treatment — a crisis can occur. Police are often called to handle these situations.
IPD Officer Mike Daley is one of many local law enforcement personnel to benefit from the CIT training program.
Now, an innovative training program is helping Indianapolis Police Department officers learn how to handle people with mental problems. The Memphis, Tenn., Police Department developed Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in response to public outcry over the 1987 fatal police shooting of an unarmed mentally ill man. The Indianapolis affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a support, advocacy and educational organization for the mentally ill, brought together police and local mental health care providers to start the program here. “This is one way we felt that persons with mental illness could be diverted out of the criminal justice system,” said Deborah Washburn, vice president and president-elect of NAMI Indianapolis. Indiana law already has an immediate detention statute that allows police to send people to treatment rather than jail, but mental illness may go unnoticed by officers, and they may react with unnecessary force, as was believed to be the case in Memphis. IPD Officer Michael Daley took CIT training, and, after the program, he said people with mental illness are easier to recognize. Psychiatric disorders are often the reason why people act criminally, he said, and getting them into treatment is a way to keep them from repeatedly falling into the criminal justice system. “Almost daily I encounter someone who is suffering from mental illness,” said Daley, who recalled a time when he confronted a woman who was threatening suicide. She would not cooperate. “Before training we probably would have had to use force,” he said. CIT training taught him that sometimes you can simply give the person a choice, and, having already decided to put her in immediate detention, he gave her the option of putting on her shoes or sitting on the couch. She sat on the couch, and, eventually, accompanied Daley voluntarily. Some situations still require force, Daley said, especially if human safety is at stake. Less-than-lethal devices like tasers, handcuffs and pepper spray are sometimes used, and people can still be charged with a crime. But care for their mental illness is primary. The jail has some ability to treat psychiatric disorders, he said, but usually they go unnoticed, labeled as odd behavior. Gina Eckart is the manager for crisis and access services at Midtown Community Mental Health Center. She said, nine times out of 10, serious mental illness is likely to escalate in jail. “They’re better served getting treatment,” she said. Midtown averages about 200 immediate detentions a month, and, in many ways, Eckart said, police have become an outreach for mental health services in the community. The majority of people brought in have never been treated for mental illness, she added. “This interaction with law enforcement and the immediate detention is their first opportunity for treatment,” she said. NAMI Indianapolis is primarily concerned with the adequate representation of the mentally ill and their families. They began working to bring the CIT program to Indianapolis four years ago, and it has become an example of successful community cooperation. “This isn’t just police training,” said Donna Yancey, a member of NAMI Indianapolis, “it’s a community partnership. We’re partnering for a safer and healthier community.” Law enforcement personnel volunteer for CIT training. The goal for IPD is to train 150 street officers. This amounts to one officer per shift per district per beat who is CIT trained. The Marion County Sheriff’s Department plans to train 48.