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National Collaboration Aims to Ensure Unity in CIT

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

A partnership between the University of Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Program, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, CIT International and NAMI, under a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, has formed to help produce a national CIT model based on data from hundreds of CIT program curriculum across the country.

Examining models that have evolved in various communities across the country since the first CIT program was adopted in Memphis in 1988, the group is looking to identify what has worked and what hasn’t. The project is a three-pronged initiative: one, to develop a standard curriculum for CIT courses; two, to develop a standard class to train the trainers of CIT programs; and three, to create a “set of community engagement strategies,” a toolkit for building community partnerships.

While the initial model crafted by the University of Memphis has been adopted by many, other communities have made changes to help develop a program specifically suited for their area. Although some of these changes may be beneficial—a rural community may have different needs than a major metropolitan area—other changes such as a decrease in the amount of training hours are not helpful.

Particular aspects that have been shown to be effective across all models are visits to settings where officers can interact with individuals in recovery live and role-playing, where law enforcement officials act out situations involving an individual with mental illness.

The CIT model has garnered a reputation as the preeminent method to help train police officers in handling cases involving mental illness. CIT programs work to help provide law enforcement based training for helping those individuals with mental illness in crisis situations by teaching officers to identify mental illness whenever possible and direct that individual through a treatment center rather than jail.

“Successful partnerships like CIT have a long standing passion in promoting, implementing and nurturing community awareness, education and fighting prejudices," said Maj. Sam Cochran (ret.), founder and coordinator of the Memphis CIT program.

The training officers receive from a CIT program attempt to prevent horrible events such as the one that took place last month in Fullerton, Calif., where Kelly Thomas, a man living with schizophrenia, was beaten to death by police officers.

Research has shown that when CIT programs have been implemented there are more positive perceptions about those with mental illness, more efficient crisis response times, increased jail diversion among those with mental illness, and an improved chance of treatment continuity with community based providers. All of this is accomplished while significantly reducing the amount of police officer injuries. However, CIT is not just a training program but an effort to create partnerships between mental health agencies, law enforcement and advocates and promotes better coordination and planning.

By addressing the training of trainers, the group hopes to provide a consensus-based model for what topics and methods all trainers should be taught. In order to be trained, members of small communities must often go to larger neighboring areas or major metro areas but a more standardized training method may allow for easier training and therefore, an increase in the number of CIT programs.

The third part of the project is the development of the set of community engagement strategies, a plan of action for the implementation of the group’s findings. One major obstacle that needs to be satiated is the interaction between various groups that help individuals living with mental illness. “A close relationship between law enforcement, mental health providers and advocates is extremely important in creating an effective CIT program,” said Laura Usher, CIT coordinator for NAMI. “Without effective planning and collaboration, training will not be enough to address these challenging situations.”

Focus group sessions were held at the CIT International Conference in Virginia Beach, Va. in September and at the NAMI convention held in Chicago in July. Involving individuals living mental illness, their families, advocates, law enforcement and CIT leaders, the sessions sought to discover what are the aspects that either make CIT successful or unsuccessful. The University of Memphis CIT is still gathering information on curriculum from CIT programs across the country through a survey on their website.

NAMI and CIT groups offered similar feedback stating their was a lack of mental health services such as no receiving facility or long wait times for transfer of custody. Law enforcement identified resource challenges such as overtime costs and a lack of manpower to cover training.

“It was exciting to meet with family members, individuals with mental illness, advocates, law enforcement leaders, mental health professionals and educators from all over the nation,” said Dr. Randolph Dupont, a Professor and Clinical Psychologist at the University of Memphis School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Dr. Dupont is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of mental illness and crisis de-escalation systems and is the lead consultant and key instructor for the Memphis Police CIT program. “The energy and the dedication to the needs of those with mental illness was impressive and inspiring.”

Elaine Deck, senior program manager of the Smaller Law Enforcement Agency Technical Assistance Program of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, believes this effort is extremely important in fostering positive relations and interactions between law enforcement and individuals living with mental illness. “Our members are eager for recommendations on policy and procedure to respond to persons in emotional crisis and anticipate this CIT curriculum and technical assistance will be a step forward in keeping law enforcement and the communities they serve safer for everyone,” Deck said.

Compiling all the gathered information, a steering committee from across all three major groups involved, law enforcement, mental health providers and advocates, will create a model to send to all CIT programs across the country for feedback. The model will not necessarily be a strict standard, however, said Usher, but rather a consensus model based on both expert opinion and data gathered from hundreds of CIT programs. The hope is to create the most effective model possible to help avert negative encounters between law enforcement and crisis situations involving individuals living with mental illness.

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