Every day, police officers across the U.S. respond to calls involving people with mental illnesses. These individuals are often incarcerated, and nationwide jails hold 10 times as many people with serious mental illnesses as state hospitals, according to a report from Kaiser Health News.
“There are, shamefully, lots of people with public mental illness who are known to public systems, out there on the streets, very much at the risk of being victimized or engaging in conduct that could get them in trouble with the police,” says Robert Bernstein, president and executive director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in an article in the online newsletter The Science of Us. When mentally ill persons are approached as possible perpetrators, the mental health system is failing, Bernstein says.
Michael Woody knows this scenario firsthand: on a call for the Akron, Ohio, police department several years ago, he encountered a 27-year-old mentally ill individual who threatened his life and ultimately committed suicide. This prompted him to question the small amount—just five hours—of mandatory mental health training officers were then required to take, and he pushed for more. Since then, he has become an advocate for training to help police officers de-escalate crisis situations involving the mentally ill. Today he serves as president of CIT International, a nonprofit whose primary purpose is to support mental health training for police forces across the country.
According to a recent FBI report, the expense to implement and maintain crisis intervention training (CIT) outweighs the cost of not establishing a program. Injuries to law enforcement personnel and individuals with mental illness as well as repeat calls for these issues are considerably reduced when CIT programs are in place which encourage officers to direct persons with mental illness to mental health-care facilities for treatment prior to issuing any criminal charges. This process reduces lawsuits, medical bills, and jail costs and improves the quality of life for the community, according to the FBI report.
Through the work of people like Woody and CIT International, police departments are beginning to take note and to require CIT. In San Antonio, Texas, police officers now take 40 hours of crisis intervention training, and the city has a six-person unit specially equipped to respond to 9-1-1 calls involving mental health disturbances.
The officers’ training helps them better determine whether people need to go to jail or a hospital or would be best served by being taken to the city’s Restoration Center. The centralized complex, across from the city’s homeless shelter, was built using cross-departmental resources to divert people with serious mental health illness from jail and into treatment instead. Among other things, it provides a space for police to bring arrestees to sober up, which saves them a costly trip to the emergency room. Together the CIT training and Restoration Center have saved the City of San Antonio and its police force an estimated $50 million over the past five years and at least $600,000 a year in overtime pay, according to the Kaiser Health News report.