As America faces a shortage in resources for the mentally ill, police officers are typically the first to respond when citizens are in crisis.
Handling these situations without proper training is a major challenge for law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Until just a few years ago, the Huntsville Police Department (HPD) struggled with it, too.
“We realized a long time ago that police are not designed to handle every single problem,” said HPD Officer Johnny Hollingsworth. “We can be a band aid but, to truly get solutions, we have to incorporate all of our community.”
That’s why Hollingsworth approached Police Chief Mark McMurray, then captain of HPD’s West Precinct, about starting a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program in Huntsville. By allowing officers to become CIT-certified, HPD could help those with serious mental disorders access medical treatment rather than be placed in the criminal justice system.
In the Huntsville metropolitan area, McMurray said about 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness. Approximately 40 percent of those with mental illness will be arrested at least once in their lifetime.
“The criminal justice system was not set up for treating mental illness,” McMurray said. “When you get incarcerated and you’re in need of some kind of medication, treatment or psychiatric care, that’s very difficult to get while you’re in jail. Our role here in Huntsville is to keep you out of the criminal justice system and get you treatment.”
Our role here in Huntsville is to keep you out of the criminal justice system and get you treatment.”
HPD applied for a competitive CIT grant and was one of only four law enforcement agencies in the country to receive funds. Since it began training officers in this response, HPD has built strong partnerships in the community and helped connect the mentally ill with the resources and services they need to get better.
Officers trained in the tenants of this community-based policing enable HPD to build goodwill between the mentally ill and law enforcement. That trust is crucial in achieving a positive outcome in crisis situations.
“It prepares the law enforcement officers to interact with anyone who, based on their behavior, is thought to be mentally ill,” said Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger. “It gives them all the tools they need to appropriately assess a situation and determine if the individual might need to be hospitalized or treated for a mental health issue. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Goals of CIT
Designed exclusively for first responders, CIT provides:
- Supportive measures and on-the-job tools to enhance and maintain law enforcement officer, consumer and public safety
- Intervention strategies and alternatives to direct the mentally ill to the appropriate healthcare during crisis situations
Wellstone Behavioral Health CEO Jeremy Blair said the goal is to keep individuals out of jail and emergency room departments unnecessarily. The training also helps officers better understand the difference between a mental health crisis and deliberate evasive or combative behavior.
“CIT gives the officer another tool in equipping them to de-escalate situations that may arise,” he said. “It helps them to A) recognize the signs and symptoms of someone who may be in mental health distress and B) how to most appropriately address those individuals in the midst of that distress.”
Earlier this year, HPD began working with Wellstone to offer first-in-Alabama teleconferencing during crisis situations involving the mentally ill. With the software on their laptops, trained mental health officers can instantly connect with a professional for discussion and guidance on how to properly handle a situation as it’s unfolding.
Compassion and understanding
Wellstone, which provides several CIT training modules for the police department, has also reserved a bed for HPD at its Crisis Residential Center (CRC). If someone is in crisis and is willing to get help, Hollingsworth said CRC can provide inpatient treatment.
“With this training, our officers are developing compassion and understanding, so when they get there, they realize this person’s in crisis,” he said. “By reaching out to them early in the crisis, they have a better chance of fully recovering and having stronger stability.”
By reaching out to them early in the crisis, they have a better chance of fully recovering and having stronger stability.”
In March 2020, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 326) that increased the number of mandatory CIT hours for all officers. Under the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and the Training Commission, officers must now receive 16 hours of training compared to the previous eight-hour requirement.
Judge Barger said HPD’s efforts play a critical role in improving response to those struggling with mental health issues.
“We’ve created a system that works for Madison County,” he said. “We’re bringing everybody around the table with great frequency to make sure it’s still working and that we’re not missing something. It’s constantly fine-tuned so we’re serving the community the best we can.”