Robert E. Griffin: Reduce ‘suicide by cop’ cases by providing police with extra mental health training

Robert E. Griffin - Contributing Columnist | August 21st, 2015 10:41 am

The recent tragic and traumatic death of an elderly man in Pittston, which was ruled “suicide by cop,” should give us pause and compel us to wonder how such things can happen.

Loneliness and isolation are increasing in our society. Treatment funding and availability of mental health care are not sufficient, and stigmas still persist that reduce many people’s willingness to seek help.

Police are increasingly called to respond to crises related to mental health and substance abuse that require the wisdom of Solomon, with little time to reflect. It is estimated that between 7 percent and 15 percent of police calls involve a person with a mental illness who might be in crisis.

These situations must be handled immediately, usually without involvement of mental heath professionals. Most police receive little training in mental health. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that lack of adequate police training may create municipal liability, where failure to train amounts to “deliberate indifference” for the rights of persons with whom police come into contact.

To be very clear: Tragedies cannot always be prevented. Sometimes police officers and people in mental health crisis are injured or killed. However, these traumatic incidents can be reduced, and more positive outcomes can be achieved.

One very promising effort in this direction is the Memphis Tennessee’s “Crisis Intervention Team” model, or CIT. Police officers can volunteer to receive additional mental health training and respond to calls where a mental health crisis is identified. These officers are proud of the work they do. The White House has recognized the pioneering work of the Memphis police.

The CIT started in 1988 when the Memphis police responded to a crisis in which a mentally ill man with a knife was shot and killed by police. The community was up in arms. Out of that tragedy came the creative work of a then police lieutenant who initiated the CIT program and later championed it nationally.

Since police have been trained in the 21-foot rule, which indicates that a person with a knife is a threat to an officer’s life if this distance is not maintained, increasing numbers of mentally ill people are being shot and killed, according to some reports.

In Akron, Ohio, police have adopted CIT training and the use of Tasers, which are effective at 21 feet. The tactics not only have saved lives, but also prevented trauma for officers who might have otherwise used guns. The Akron CIT program recommends that one-quarter of a police force receive CIT training.

Crisis Intervention Team programs have reduced injuries to officers, facilitated more access to mental health services for people in crisis, reduced arrests and prevented traumatic and tragic events for police, families and communities. Confidence in police is increased, and families are more likely to call police for help. Often an officer arrives who has a relationship with the family and the person who is in a mental health crisis.

Members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness attest to the facts of their heartbreaking personal experiences of having mentally ill family members and being fearful of calling the police for help, uncertain if police would be sympathetic, compassionate and helpful.

The Memphis CIT model is changing that. More win-win outcomes are being facilitated. It’s up to us all to be part of that.

Robert E. Griffin

Contributing Columnist

Robert E. Griffin is a psychologist in Forty Fort.