By Bob Schelen
Isla Vista. Fullerton. A Los Angeles freeway.
These are all places where training in handling people with mental illness may have made a difference.
In Isla Vista, someone might have noticed a behavior pattern that would have warranted a search or a 5150 hold, and a mass killing may have been stopped. In Fullerton, perhaps police officers might have noticed a pattern of behavior that would have kept a man alive, and in Los Angeles, perhaps a highway patrol officer may have been able to better handle a woman crossing a freeway.
The job of a peace officer is often a thankless and dangerous one, and we owe these men and women a great deal for what they sacrifice for our safety. It is important to note the great work that peace officers do, but we must also work to develop ways to make their jobs safer and to help them recognize a person in crisis and in need of help.
I know there are always “should haves” and could haves” on how to handle dangerous situations, and we need to be cognizant of the safety of both law enforcement and the general public. However, we do know that there are things that can be done — things that already have been done and have quantifiable success.
Police are often first responders to a mental health crisis, and it has been estimated that up to 35 percent of jail inmates throughout the country may have a mental illness. How do law-enforcement personnel deal with a person they encounter who has a mental illness? The answer can determine whether a situation becomes a tragedy or provides help for someone.
Increasingly, Crisis Intervention Team training helps fill the gap between for law-enforcement personnel. CIT officers are trained to deal with someone in a mental health crisis or to deal with someone with a mental illness. They have been trained in what to look for and how to talk to the person in crisis.
CIT programs provide law enforcement-based crisis intervention training for helping individuals with mental illness. In addition, CIT works in partnership with the mental health care system to provide services that are friendly and helpful to the individuals with mental illness, family members and police officers.
As a result, additional training on how to respond to someone with a mental illness reduces the risk of injuries to officers, avoids unnecessary arrests, reduces chances for ugly and violent altercations, directs individuals with mental illness to appropriate treatment, increases public safety and lowers costs to taxpayers.
CIT training allows law-enforcement officers to break down barriers, to not put themselves in an “us vs. them” situation. It allows better understanding of what a person with mental illness is going through. One officer who had received the training said, “For us to understand what schizophrenia is from their point of view is tremendous. Most of us have no or little point of reference to know what their life is like.”
CIT training makes a difference. If someone destroys property or acts out during a mental health crisis, putting them in jail is not a solution. A diversion program where they can make restitution and get treatment is a far superior resolution. It may keep a similar event from happening again.
Related to CIT training is the special court system. We have started such efforts in Yolo County, but they are only beginning to see results as pilot programs. It is important that they are made permanent and expanded. Research shows the success of such programs throughout the nation.
CIT training should not be limited only to first responders; it needs to be an important part of the jail system, too. According to a recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, “there are now three times more seriously mental ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals.” In other words, “America’s jails and prisons have become our new mental hospitals.”
This situation results in enormous costs since offenders with mental illness are “frequent fliers” — that is, they experience high rates of recidivism — and their imprisonment costs more than prisoners without mental illnesses.
In addition, the TAC report notes, mentally ill inmates stay longer in jail, are more likely to commit suicide, are subject to abuse and, because of sometimes impaired judgement, may be disruptive, violent and destructive.
Ideally, with CIT training, families and those with mental illness will not view law enforcement as the enemy, but as people with training who can understand what they are going through.
If an officer responds to a crisis situation and uses his CIT knowledge in a successful intervention, perhaps that keeps another officer from returning to that house or to that person. Perhaps, it allows those who visited the house in Isla Vista to recognize signs where they can act to avoid tragedy. Perhaps, it allows for treatment for those in crisis.
There is progress, but there continues to be a stigma attached to mental illness. And when people with mental illness become a part of the criminal justice system, that is not always recognized. CIT training recognizes it and informs those involved that it is a medical issue.
We need to change hearts and minds. We need to do so in our community, our county, our state. CIT training should not be an “extra,” an elective for officers and deputies. A start is to require Crisis Intervention Team training for all law-enforcement personnel in Yolo County.
It just makes sense.
— Bob Schelen, a longtime Davis resident, is chairman of the Yolo County Mental Health Board.