BERKELEY -- It happens across the country: Police are summoned to help a person experiencing a mental health issue, and the individual in crisis ends up jailed or dead.
In 1987, Memphis police fatally shot a suicidal person holding a knife. Public condemnation led to the birth of Crisis Intervention Training, a partnership among police, mental health professionals and consumers aiming for a more humane law enforcement response toward people exhibiting mental distress.
Berkeley initiated its CIT program in January. Officer Jeffrey Shannon, a marriage and family therapist, is the coordinator. This question-and-answer interview with him was edited for length.
Q: Who partners with Berkeley police?
A: The police department has enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship with Berkeley Mental Health -- probably close to 30 years. They were at the table when we formed a steering committee back in 2006-07 to get CIT to Berkeley. The Mental Health Commission and consumer advocates were there.
It was a several-years process to bring the first daylong training (April 2010 with a dozen Berkeley officers), a kind of a teaser training and very successful.
About the same time, the Oakland Police Department was looking at bringing CIT to the whole county; we joined them in developing the (standard 40-hour) training. Now, the county CIT is sponsored by the Oakland Police Department and Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services. Our CIT officially launched in January.
Q: How many CIT officers are trained and on the street?
A: The number of active people -- active to patrol -- that have been trained are 13: one lieutenant, four sergeants and eight police officers. (The Berkeley department has 168 police officers.)
Our immediate goal is to train 20 to 25 percent of all active patrol officers and sergeants. We're moving in that direction. The problem is that officers assigned to patrol may get a special assignment and (won't be) on patrol, so it's kind of a revolving door, but that is the immediate goal.
Q: What's your interest in CIT?
A: I have a mental health background. I worked in community mental health for about 15 years, so I have a lot of experience treating people that have serious and persistent mental illness.
Q: What's the advantage of a CIT-trained officer?
A: If a CIT officer responds to a call involving a mental health consumer in crisis, that officer will have specific training in recognizing a mental health crisis -- not for a long-term solution or treatment planning, but how to resolve that immediate crisis using de-escalation skills learned in training.
After the crisis is resolved, or is resolving, that CIT officer is probably going to have more knowledge than other officers of what resources are available.
Q: What do you mean by de-escalation?
A: It is using the least amount of force possible to resolve a crisis. We talk to a lot of people who are very agitated, who are violent, so we use (techniques) like "active listening" and "emotional labeling" to say, "I can see you're really, really angry right now." These techniques tend to calm people down.
Q: Would a CIT officer be more likely to take a person in crisis to a psychiatric hospital than to jail?
A: One of the main components of CIT is diversion. We look for opportunities to divert people with serious mental illness away from the criminal justice system and back into the community system of care.
Q: Are dispatchers trained to recognize mental health-related calls?
A: Not currently. The first class of dispatcher training was held (in Oakland) about a month ago. We will be sending our dispatchers to that class. In the recent past, they haven't had that extra training, but they are skilled in recognizing a crisis in general.
Q: How many mental health calls do you get on average?
A: That's difficult to get at; many of the calls we get don't get dispatched as mental health emergencies, but when we get there, we determine it. It looks like for (a) two-month period we had (about) 161 calls.
Q: Do you work with the city's Mobile Crisis Team?
A: We do. The MCT is staffed by licensed clinicians. We're very clear that our CIT officers are not clinicians. We use the MCT (on duty from about 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.), as we have for many years, as an additional resource the city of Berkeley provides in terms of consultation, intervention and follow-up. They get dispatched to calls fairly regularly.
The clinicians will often ask an officer to go to a call with them. Our officers often ask the Mobile Crisis Team to respond with them. Sometimes officers will ask for Berkeley Mobile Crisis, and if they're not available, then they'll ask for a CIT officer. There are lots of possibilities.
Q: What do you do if the person in crisis has a weapon?
A: One of the CIT officers' primary duties is to establish some kind of rapport with this person, let them know that they're there to help them. The CIT officer's role is to recognize what might be going on with this person and distinguish the signs and symptoms of mental illness versus other things that may be going on and try to engage that person in a helpful way. As a clarification, all our officers do that. It's not as if a regular patrol officer who hasn't had the training isn't going to do that.
Q: What do police officers think about the training?
A: There's been a mixed reaction and response to the introduction of CIT. In our department, it's a specialized assignment; you have to apply to be a CIT officer here. We've had some of our most respected officers apply, and that, fortunately, sent a message that this is a valuable program.