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Ask a Cop: CIT Changes the Way Law Enforcement Respond in a Crisis

Sherry Cusumano and Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner

Ask a Cop is a new occasional column produced by NAMI’s CIT Center, answering common questions about law enforcement and mental health issues. The column is an opportunity to learn about the law enforcement officer’s perspective on how officers, providers and individuals and families affected by mental illness can work together to improve crisis responses. To ask a question, please email with the subject line “Ask a Cop.” Please note that we will not be able to answer all questions or to discuss individual legal cases.

Contributors: Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner is a 25 year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. He has served Dallas PD as a CIT officer and is the department’s Crisis Intervention Mental Health Liaison. Sr. Corporal Cotner is also the Vice President of NAMI Dallas. 

Sherry Cusumano, RN, LCDC, MS is the President of NAMI Dallas and Executive Director of Community Education and Clinical Development at Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She’s been trained in the Memphis Model CIT Program and has worked closely with the Dallas Police Department to assist in providing CIT training to numerous law enforcement agencies in the region.

Q: Why did you get involved in CIT?

I became involved in CIT  because of my training responsibilities in the department. I was selected early in my career and offered the opportunity to become a certified instructor for the police department. Most of the classes I covered were standard operating procedures related to my patrol job. In 2003, the department wanted to make a change to the mental health curriculum and the manner in which it was being taught. I was approached at that time to see if I had an interest in taking over the mental health training.

I was interested for many reasons, one of which is that I have many people that I am close to that live with mental illnesses and I have had the misfortune of knowing officers who were harmed in the course of their jobs when responding to a mental health crisis. I felt strongly that such events could sometimes be prevented if more training about mental illness was made available to law enforcement. Everyone could reap the benefits if officers were given the tools they needed to more effectively deal with such situations.

Several years later I was asked to research the best model for mental health training and that led me right to the 40 hour crisis intervention team model. I met with NAMI Dallas and the local Mental Health America chapter on behalf of the Dallas Police Department to get feedback about implementing this model and their response was overwhelmingly positive.

The other reason I’m involved in CIT is that I have a family member who has dealt with depression for a long time. Whether I was aware of this or not, it led me to have an interest in responding to people in crisis. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to work in a job that feeds my personal interest and passion!  Sometimes you get lucky. I have learned so much while doing this job that has been helpful for me personally. I’ve gained knowledge and skills that have given me a greater understanding of my family member. I don’t take it personally anymore when the illness takes over. Sherry Cusumano, who teaches with me, has a very similar story.

Q: What’s makes a CIT officer’s response different in a crisis?

I view this question from two perspectives. The first perspective is that of being a family member. I am afraid that calling the police to help my loved one will lead to someone getting hurt. I recommend to family members that they drop their fears about telling the police about their loved one’s mental illness. When you have to call 911 you need to tell the operator everything. Describe your loved one so that when law enforcement responds, they will recognize the person and situation. Tell them his diagnosis, and inform them if you know what triggered the crisis, or if you know of behavior that might make the situation worse.  Let them know if he has had a previous psychotic episode. If you know what he or she perceives, inform us of that as well. Every detail we receive about your loved one impacts the way we approach them. If the officer has better information about the situation, it greatly increases the chances that we will be able to avoid a critical incident.

The other perspective is how CIT changes the way the officer handles the individual that he or she is taking into custody to transport them for care. This is a very different perspective for the officers. CIT officers no longer view the person as a prisoner, but rather as an individual that they are taking into custody to get them the care they need. The truth is that with the lack of psychiatric beds and other services available at the present time, we have a large population that end up contacting police instead of health care professionals when they are in crisis. So this has changed the law enforcement role. With the CIT program, many law enforcement agencies have learned that we need to treat people in crisis as individuals who have an illness and take them to get the necessary treatment.

Law enforcement and our jails and prisons have become the major providers for the mental health care in our country. While this is not an acceptable situation, it is a fact and we need to do what we can to respond in a way that leads to a good outcome for everyone. Doctors in the psychiatric emergency rooms have told us that they can tell the difference between officers who have received the training and those who have not by listening to the interactions between officer and h the patient. When the officer is trained in CIT, they become part of the treatment team and the recovery actually starts when the individual with mental illness makes contact with police.