Police search for better ways to handle those with mental illness

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By BRANDON CHEW
Capital News Service

LANSING — With the Detroit Police Department working to bring additional support for officers encountering mentally ill people, leaders of other law enforcement agencies are backing training efforts to improve interactions with mentally ill people. 

The Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network and the city’s police department have  implemented crisis intervention training with an emphasis on being able to identify if someone is having a mental health crisis. 

“What Chief (James) Craig is doing with the Detroit PD is creating crisis intervention teams,” said Matthew Saxton, the executive director for the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. 

Crisis intervention training refers to programs that help guide interactions between law enforcement and those with mental illness. 

Saxton said training can help police handle people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“With our crisis intervention training, we’re able to train our officers, when they come into a situation like that, (to ask) ‘Are there other options for that than going to jail?’” he said. “Can we get a trained health professional to deal with that individual, as opposed to just throwing that person in jail for maybe the fifth time that month?” 

A criminal justice lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn said the ways police officers have been trained to handle such situations directly conflict with their ability to safely engage with people who have mental health problems. 

“The biggest problem we have is that police are just trained in these aggressive tactics,” Aaron Kinzel said. 

“They’re taught to take control of a situation and escalate force,” Kinzel said. “That’s the wrong way to deal with mentally ill people. They need to de-escalate the situation.”

 Other law enforcement officials agreed that police are often trained to take control, and that can inhibit their ability to mediate situations involving people with a mental health condition. 

“We were taught in the (police) academy that when you saw a threat you closed (in) on it,” said Jim Blocker, the police chief in Battle Creek. 

“Well, that’s just the opposite with a mental health call — you want to give them that space,” he said. “You want to give them that room to respond. So it’s a different approach, but the outcome is also remarkably different.” 

Blocker said there has been a decrease in officers’ use of force as a result of the additional crisis intervention training. 

He defined use of force as actions  ranging from handcuffing an individual to deadly force. 

“Out of almost 1,000 CIT (crisis intervention team) calls for service Calhoun Countywide that we’ve taken, use of force is less than 1%, which is remarkable,” Blocker said. “The CIT program takes a lot more work, but you get a lot more out of it.”

As an example, Blocker said a shirtless man was out in public and wielding a baseball bat in Calhoun County. Blocker attributed crisis intervention training to 911 dispatchers recognizing potential signs of mental illness and alerting the officers.

The man was on the autism spectrum, Blocker said, and without the officers understanding he had a mental illness, they would have responded differently. 

“Our dispatchers know to say ‘stand by,’  do a quick check and look for mental health, look for any of those indicators,’” he said. “And in that example, by the way, that young man got help.” 

James White, the director of the Department of Civil Rights and a former assistant police chief in Detroit, emphasized the importance of mental health training for officers. 

“In Detroit, I remember there were times that as much as 60% of our police runs had some form of mental health nexus to them,” White said. “I’ve been in meetings where 40% to 50% of those in detention had some form of mental health crisis.” 

“So it’s imperative that agencies around the country, let alone the state, adopt some form of training for their officers to engage those who are in crisis.” 

Mental health training is also available to those who assist officers in their day-to-day operations. 

“What was good about Detroit is they provided training to the 911 staff, which I think is very, very important because they’re the first ones to get the phone call,” said Emmet County Sheriff Pete Wallin. 

“We work with our local North Central Community Mental Health,” Wallin said. “It is 12 hours of training, and it’s going to do basically the same thing as they did down in Detroit. It’s going to give us the resources on how to deal with people with mental health issues.” 

While crisis intervention training can help his officers, Wallin said that there still aren’t enough spaces available to house people experiencing a mental health crisis. 

“One of the problems we do face up here with mental health issues is we don’t have places to place these people, in lieu of going to jail,” he said. “We all know there’s a need for beds for these people. Unfortunately, a lot of times they end up in my facility.”

For smaller departments that might not have access to treatment facilities, White suggested increased cooperation among neighboring departments. 

“So what can small agencies do?” White said. “I think leverage relationships with larger agencies or combine the resources of small agencies and communities to make a larger support and training program for its officers.”