Crisis Training Helps Responses To Mental Health Issues

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Sometimes the biggest tool law enforcement has to calm a volatile situation is a 1-inch-diameter pin.

When officers respond to a call, they don’t know if an irate person is just upset, high on drugs or struggling with a mental issue.

But Crisis Intervention Team training helps arm officers with the skills and techniques to not only recognize when a person they encounter could have a mental issue, but also with the knowledge of how to calm that person down and find a peaceful resolution. At the end of the 40-hour course, taught by both medical and law enforcement officials, the graduates receive a gold pin showing they are Crisis Intervention Team members.

Officers wear these pins on their chests, just above their name tags, so that people can see them and know these officers can and will help them.

“A lot of people in the system know that pin and that can bring the level of confrontation down,” said Mary Stacy, a therapist and CIT instructor with Lifecore Health Group, a Tupelo-based company with the stated goal of providing health care for individuals suffering from behavioral health discovers, development disabilities and chemical dependencies.

The company also provides CIT training to Northeast Mississippi law enforcement agencies.

Lt. Jason Putt, a deputy sheriff with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and the CIT coordinator for Tupelo-based Region III Chemical Dependency and Addiction Services, said most mental health agencies have posters showing enlarged images of the pin and explaining its significance. He said he has been on calls and seen people make a beeline to himself or another officer wearing a CIT pin.

The concept of crisis intervention training was created more than a generation ago in Memphis. Since then, what’s known as the “Memphis Model’ — a system in which law enforcement agencies have teams of officers trained to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations involving people with mental or behavioral illnesses or substance abuse issues and then possibly escort them to facilities for further evaluation — has slowly spread across the country.

Roughly five years ago, the concept began gaining ground in Mississippi.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Tupelo Police Department had officers take part in the standard CIT training course. Later, several of those officers received further training to become certified trainers themselves, allowing them to share their skills within their departments.

The coronavirus pandemic put the training on hold for a couple of years, but things have recently picked back up. The course is limited to just 14 officers at a time, and there have already been a pair of courses this year. Another course is planned for July.

Although officers touch briefly on mental health and how to deal with people having mental issues during the standard 12-week police academy, the week-long CIT course takes the information and the techniques they already know a step further.

Besides teaching officers how to recognize the signs and symptoms of someone suffering from a behavioral disorder or substance abuse issue, the CIT instruction deals with interacting with “consumers” both vocally and through body language.

This latter element — how an officer physically presents himself or herself — is more important than most people likely realize.

Lee County Deputy Sheriff Bryan Pounders said people react on a subconscious level to the way an officer stands or holds their hands. It’s more than just having the officers refrain from placing their hands on their weapons while speaking to the person.

“If my hands are behind my back, they are wondering what I am doing back there,” Pounders said. “If my arms are crossed, I am closed off and won’t listen. But if my hands are open, it says I am open and will listen to them.”

During CIT training, instructors use role-playing to act out scenarios. They try to make the situations as realistic as possible by having actors scream and/or antagonize the officers as they work, or by having multiple people trying to speak with the officer simultaneously.

At the conclusion of each scenario, there is a debriefing.

“We grade their performance,” Stacy said. “How was the tone of their voice? Were they assertive but not aggressive?”

She said the officers must have the right temperament for this type of work. Pounders agreed, noting that the officer has to change the way they talk to someone because “when emotions are high, logic is low.”

“You are not going to logic them out of an emotional crisis,” Pounders said. “If they get stressed, they will dwell on an issue, and they can go from just being anxious to having an anxiety attack.”

The CIT training also shows officers that there are options for resolving a conflict beyond simply arresting someone and carrying them to jail.

Putt said a CIT officer’s goal when approaching a “consumer” — their word for someone in a crisis situation — is to resolve the situation peacefully and by getting the person the help he or she needs.

“Our goal is to de-escalate,” Putt said. “If he or she is high on the crisis scale, if we can de-escalate it, we have succeeded.”

He noted that a lot of times, if the officers can de-escalate the situation on the scene, the person can leave and go home. After all, they are not criminals.

“We teach officers how to deal with the mental issues,” Putt said. “It is a disease, no different than someone with heart disease or diabetes.”

If the person can’t go home, there are options other than jail.

The most obvious is the Crisis Stabilization Unit in Tupelo. It opened as a four-bed facility in the fall of 2018 and has since doubled in size. By this summer, officials hope to complete an expansion to 16 beds.

There are also CSUs in Corinth, Batesville and West Point.

The units are designed for brief stays – to allow anyone carried there to rest, recover and, if needed, resume taking any necessary medications.

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson likes the options that both CIT and the stabilization unit give his deputies.

“This allows us an avenue. We don’t have to look for a criminal angle,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to wait for them to commit a crime. This gives us the option of taking them into custody and getting them help.”

And changes in the laws are opening up more possibilities. Not long ago, even if a person who committed a felony was assessed with a mental health issue, they were considered a criminal and sent to jail with access to mental health care taken away.

That’s no longer the case.

“Now, we have a way to assess the situation and determine that it was the mental health issues that led to the crime and still get them help,” Johnson said.

Although CIT training is still largely limited to large police and sheriff’s departments, Stacy would like to see smaller departments take advantage.

Most law enforcement officials will admit that a majority of the crime they see is drug-related. But many times, the drugs are masking underlying mental health issues. Training officers to better respond to a breadth of situations will only help improve safety for both them and the people they serve and protect.

Small though it is, that’s the power of the pin.

“Even folks on drugs, a lot of the time, it is mental,” Stacy said. “They are taking drugs because they are not coping well. With the rising prices and the uncertainty of the times, depression and anxiety go hand in hand. Mental health issues are out there.”