Training Police to Deal with Mentally Ill People Pays Off for Everyone

In recent years, public attention has been drawn to tragic and sometimes fatal clashes between mentally ill people and law enforcement across the United States, such as in the case of Keith Vidal, shot by police when his parents called for help.

A recent study shows that a kindler, gentler alternative is better for both police and mentally ill people: the Crisis Intervention Team, also known as the Memphis Model. It provides specialized law enforcement training so officers can respond appropriately to mental health crises and events involving mentally ill people, with outcomes that benefit everyone.

The study, published in this month’s Journal of Psychiatric Services, took a closer look at how this model is implemented in almost 3,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States. Researchers interviewed officers as well as examining records from events when law enforcement officers became involved with mentally ill people.

They found that those who had undergone the CIT training were, unsurprisingly, more knowledgeable about mental health issues. This increased knowledge resulted in suspects being diverted to mental health services rather than jails, in addition to a much lower level of force; police officers used verbal negotiation to work with suspects, rather than tasers and other equipment. This resulted in much calmer, more peaceful resolutions to tense situations, and also created a more positive outcome for people who needed mental health services more than anything else. These outcomes are positive for law enforcement officers, deescalating the danger they get into when responding to calls, and for the community — in addition to reducing the prison population.

What is CIT, and is it adaptable to more agencies?

As its alternative name suggests, this model was developed in Memphis in 1988, in concert with not just law enforcement officers, but also mental health professionals and groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The police department wanted to establish teams of specially trained law enforcement officers who would be on duty at all times to respond to emergencies involving mentally ill people.

Officers undergo a 40-hour training which lasts one week, during which they cover topics like cultural awareness, suicide prevention, clinical factors, traumatic brain injuries, safe conflict deescalation, and more. Those who complete the training can help reduce risks to officers, calm people in crisis, reduce mental health stigma, decriminalize mental illness and create functioning teams who can work on crises together, offering the most to law enforcement agencies, mentally ill people and their loved ones. Crisis Intervention Teams work to maintain the civil rights and dignity of the people they interact with, while also protecting their safety and that of others.

With more than two decades of practice, the Memphis Model has become highly refined. Law enforcement agencies across the country have reached out to Memphis to get information about adapting it to their own uses, and agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation provide support and assistance with trainings. The initial investment in the training can be high, as officers need to be paid for a week of intensive study and be provided with access to skilled, experienced instructors, but the payoff is large.

Instead of criminalizing mentally ill people, Crisis Intervention Teams work with them to get them the help they need — while ensuring they can still be held accountable for any crimes they commit. This innovative law enforcement approach is one among several being tried out across the nation as police departments and other agencies recognize that they need a safer and healthier way to work with the one in four Americans who experience mental health issues in any given year.

Photo credit: torbakhopper.


janet t.
janet t3 years ago

good idea, but we are always hearing how cops shoot first and ask questions later. Add to that that the one encounter I had when the cops showed up at my door. They came to the wrong house, after looking at the numbers on my house, could not see that they were not the ones they were looking for. I had to tell them the house they were looking for was one block down. And they trust these guys with loaded guns!!!

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

The theory is good. But can they really implement.

Christine Stewart
Christine S3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

ty for this very important topic and article!!

Vicky P.
Vicky P3 years ago

that and hopefully in the future they can hire cops who aren't Physios..

Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long & prosper!

Allan Yorkowitz
.3 years ago

Why is it that the "common man" for the most part perceive that a person is not in his/her right mind? The police need training in this? How about training in the human spirit?

Sarita Elman
Sarita Elman3 years ago

Police officers should receive INTENSIVE training in dealing with the mentally ill. A brief course is not enough. There have been too many tragedies to date, caused by officers adopting a 'shoot first' attitude when confronted by a screaming person. They should learn how to calm down a person rather than use the excuse 'my life was in danger' after the fact (which is usually a fatal shooting).

Alfred Donovan
Past Member 3 years ago

Because of the bad publicity the police have attracted in the UK it's now being suggested by politicians that police officers should be accompanied on their beat by a person not a police officer but trained in recognizing mental health problems in order to prevent violent altercations.I don't know what to make of this but I don't think the police would be in favour of the idea.

Anne M.
anne M3 years ago

How about also making sure there are no mentally impaired people in the police departments? After all, it's a bit odd that a cop would kill first and ask questions later when confronted with a mentally ill person -- or anybody else for that matter. In fact, cops are even known to shoot dogs who are on a leash or inside a fenced in yard . Such a busy trigger finger is obviously a sign of mental problems on the part of those cops. Making sure that all police officers are mentally competent would probably take care of most of these problems.