Editorial: Crisis training will pay off

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 15, 2009

Law enforcement officers from Salisbury, Kannapolis, Lexington and several other cities have been involved in training this week at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College that could be beneficial to their citizens’ mental health ó crisis intervention training.
They’re not the first ones to go through this training; quarterly sessions were held last year. But it’s worth noting the progress being made on this front. Officers often deal with people in the midst of a mental health crisis, but they don’t always have appropriate training to deal with those situations.
That’s what people in Memphis, Tenn., realized in 1987 after police shot and killed a man who was cutting himself and threatening family members with a large knife. The shooting was ruled justified, but to many people it felt wrong. As a result, the Memphis Police Department created the Crisis Intervention Team Model. Think of it as a mental-health SWAT team, armed with knowledge of and sensitivity about mental illness.
Major Sam Cochran, coordinator of the Memphis department’s Crisis Intervention Team, is a frequent speaker on the subject. “Instead of diffusing a hostage situation or nabbing corner dealers, CIT cops specialize in taking care of the bipolar teenager in the midst of a manic episode,” Cochran has said. “When such a call comes in, at least one CIT officer is dispatched to head up the case. With trained personnel on the scene, the outcome is less often a night in jail followed by arraignment and more often a call to a social worker or psychiatrist.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, including members of the local chapter, has supported taking the Memphis model nationwide. The sessions here are coordinated by Piedmont Behavioral Health, which reports that 96 officers in its five-county area completed the training in 2008, and 29 are in the group scheduled to graduate from the 40-hour program today. The goal is for 25 percent of all area law enforcement officers to get the training. That means at least 25 percent would understand that mental illness is just that ó an illness ó and be prepared to deal with it in a safe, effective way.
Let’s hope they pass that understanding on to others. After implementing this new approach, Memphis police found themselves putting fewer people in jail and suffering fewer on-the-job injuries from dealing with people whose crises they didn’t fully understand. That’s a step forward for officers and citizens ó a step local departments should be glad to take.