National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Fighting stigma in law enforcement:

The message has to come from the heart

By Major Sam Cochran

The Memphis Police Department pioneered the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in 1988 after the police shooting, a year earlier, of a 27-year-old man who had mental illness. The people in Memphis - including the Police Department, the city administration, family members of people who had mental illnesses, and those individuals themselves - were determined to change law enforcement crisis services and to do so within a context of safety, understanding and dignity. Fifteen years later, the CIT model has proven so successful that similar programs have been established in approximately 50 to 80 diverse communities, cities and counties around the country.

What makes the CIT so successful? As I have said often, it's more than just training! Although the 40-hour training is substantial, what really makes the CIT effective is its foundation of sensitivity and understanding interwoven within the framework of community partnerships. This gives birth to community ownership – which is the CIT heartbeat.

Although many law enforcement agencies are making positive strides toward meeting the demands and complexities of crisis events, these efforts are more often than not formatted within the context of training hours only. However, the expectation that training by itself will resolve the issues of stigma is not realistic. Mere training is not enough to compensate when there is no infrastructure of services and care. To combat the devastating effects and trauma brought about by the stigma of mental illness requires a profound community outcry, joined with linkages to appropriate community service infrastructures. CIT is a profound course of action. It is a hope, a voice, a necessary plan to correct the harmful and life-taking tragedies of stigma's past and present.

The Memphis CIT consists of nearly 240 officers assigned to the Uniform Patrol Division, which comprises more than 900 officers, linked to the 911 Dispatch System, choreographed for an immediate crisis response. CIT officers, who volunteer for the program, must submit to a thorough selection process. Crisis calls with a mental illness component require special talents and attributes that are not found in all officers; CIT members share attributes of good judgment, maturity and leadership. (Some law enforcement officers can't get along with citizens while writing a traffic ticket, much less with someone in a serious psychiatric crisis!)

The Memphis team maintains citywide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When CIT officers - who wear an identifying pin - arrive on the scene, they are in charge. This does not negate the supervisor chain of command; it enhances clarity and responsibility and provides order during a crisis assessment in defining an appropriate response/disposition.

The results speak for themselves. After the Memphis CIT hit the streets, the number of people we were putting in jail decreased, and the officer injury rate also reflected a significant reduction in regard to crisis calls. Another positive change is that CIT officers became advocates for consumers and set an example for future qualified officers to follow. Consumers also saw a positive change in the police and have since been more willing to call the police themselves regarding their personal crisis or as a citizen calling for other law enforcement services.

One of the most important and rewarding parts of the CIT training is the eight hours of officer and consumer interaction. Officers and consumers meet each other openly and build new relationships of understanding. This has been a very positive component and serves to offset some of the stigmas often associated with people who have mental illnesses.

No matter which way you look at the problems in the criminal justice system in regard to people who have mental illnesses, the bottom line is about stigma. Stigma comes in many different disguises - but all are treacherous. A lot of times, it's even the good intentions that stigmatize individuals who happen to have a mental illness. That's a tragedy within itself.

Many people are trying to address crisis services, and they say, "We're going to provide extra training." That's great; it needs to be in place. But one of the most important things I need to say - not only to law enforcement officers but also to communities - is that people with mental illnesses have special needs and are deserving of special care and services. This is an uncompromising position and should be recognized accordingly. The CIT program, by having a special crisis response, underscores this message. No matter how good or well intentioned, generic training does not deliver that message - at least, not with the necessary passion.

I wish we could say that CIT ends stigma, but it's only one avenue. We need many different avenues to combat stigma - because it's generated and inappropriately nurtured in so many different ways.

One thing is clear: The message in regard to CIT and stigma has to come from the heart, and it has to be a changed heart. You can't just say, "We need to educate our officers about mental illness." We've been doing that for years. But mere education about mental illness is not enough to combat the hurtful and tragic effects of stigma. So you have to have a change of heart. You have to have a change of mind. And these changes must be profound.

Until that happens, you can have the best training program in the world, but if you don't have the necessary support - partnerships, community service infrastructures - I'm afraid you're not going to be able to meet the full potential of CIT: changing of hearts.

I suspect that if you were driving down the street and saw a man carrying a white cane with a red tip who was having difficulty crossing, you would witness a traffic jam with people stopping and exiting their vehicles to help this individual walk across the street. Yet every day we pass by individuals in severe crisis because of mental illnesses, and we never see them. We don't see them with our eyes, and we don't see them with our hearts. Sadly, stigma blinds more than our eyesight.

The family members and the consumers: they're the people who inspire us. They're the people we need to address our attention and service to. With passion, we ask, "Who are 'the mentally ill'?" They're our fathers, our mothers, our sons and daughters, our cousins, aunts and uncles. They're us.

Major Sam Cochran, a 29-year veteran of the Memphis, Tenn., Police Department (MPD), is the coordinator of the MPD Crisis Intervention Team, a specialized group of officers within the MPD's Uniform Patrol Division. "CIT - It's more than just training."