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Enforcing the Law and Caring for Mental Health

Saturday morning cartoons make everything seem so simple, don’t they? Think of the shows you watched as a child. The police officers were the good guys and the criminals — usually dressed in black with a mask — were the bad guys. Good guys caught bad guys and the situation resolved itself.

The real world is a far cry from our Saturday morning cartoons, however, and the targets of our police officers’ work seldom wear masks. In the real world, issues aren’t as easy as good and bad. Sometimes there’s good and ill — specifically mentally ill. For law enforcement departments across the country, instances involving mentally ill individuals are increasing all the time.

A Product of Funding Cuts

Patrick Kenny, D/M, Ph.D., LCSW, of the Behavioral Services Division with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, sees instances of law enforcement dealing with mentally ill individuals all the time. “Law enforcement has recognized the increasing number of calls involving people with mental illness, especially here in Florida where the mental health funding and the allocation of resources are insufficient to meet the demand.”

Yet as the demand to handle cases involving mentally ill people has increased, departments themselves are scrambling to meet this new need. Certified crisis intervention training (CIT) officers have received specific training to help them manage these situations, but they are few and far between. To date, only 2,000 officers, deputies and correctional staff have undergone the minimum 40-hour training course. And across the country, more officer certifications are sorely needed.

An Issue of Time and Money

For law enforcement agencies, the challenge to push more officers through the training program is a familiar one. “The obstacles for all law enforcement are always time and money,” said Kenny. “The training course is normally 40 hours. This means that an officer will be removed from their normally assigned positions, such as patrolling, and reassigned to a classroom.”

While the reallocation of one officer may seem small, that absence creates a lack of personnel on the streets and, as Kenny points out, an agency pushing 100 employees through the training would lose a total of 4,000 hours of patrol. Filling this gap with overtime or new hires is prohibitively expensive for the tight budgets of most departments.

Further compounding the problem is trying to get officers scheduled for classes that, as of now, can only satisfy a limited demand. “The average class size is 30 people,” Kenny said. “The training usually involves multiple agencies participating, with each agency sending three or four officers. Many times the classes are only offered a few times per year.”

Benefits of the CIT Training

While many departments are struggling to find resources to fund this important training, Kenny says the benefits to departments with CIT-trained officers have been monumental.

“The training is important because it allows the officers to utilize resources other than making an arrest,” he said. “The officers are provided tools to identify people suffering from mental illness, to allocate community-based resources for the individual in need and/or their families, and to reduce the frequency of law enforcement contact.”

Kenny adds that the training also helps officers learn tips and tactics to de-escalate situations, reducing the number of necessary arrests and the physical contact between officer and individual that can occur.

“It allows the officers to slow down and reassess a situation based upon the behaviors and actions of the individual while differentiating between a noncompliant person or a person with mental illness.”

For departments as a whole, investing in CIT training can also help mitigate exposure should an incident involving officers and a mentally ill individual turn tragic, but the training has more wide-reaching benefits that support the entire community. “Another benefit to the training involves partnerships between law enforcement and the mental health community,” Kenny said. “Working together, both help share the message about advocacy for mentally ill and the need for additional services and funding.”

Finding Additional Resources

For departments looking to introduce CIT training, Kenny recommends they contact CIT International to find training opportunities available in their state or region. Locating such resources may be difficult, particularly in rural areas, but CIT International is committed to helping departments find the best training opportunities possible. It’s important work, because while the real world isn’t as simple as those morning cartoons, there are still solutions to assist the good guys out there — and the people who need their help most.

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