Why Mental Health Crisis Training Is Important For Police

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Protesters face off with police during a rally in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, Calif. on Sept. 28, 2016. (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)
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Protests continued for a second night in El Cajon, California, last night, after Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, was shot by an officer.

The shooting took place even though his sister made a 911 call, and informed police he was having mental health issues and was unarmed.

Mental health crises have been a continuing issue for police forces around the country, and many cities have training programs so officers can learn how to deal with these incidents.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Maj. James Cleek, training bureau commander at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Interview Highlights: James Cleek

On the El Cajon, California shooting

“I think it took me back to several thoughts. And the reason why we have crisis intervention team today, CIT, as it originated in Memphis in ’88 in a very similar circumstance, where officers shot a mentally ill subject and there was a cry for help from the community to find better ways to deal with those in crisis. And we’ve come so far where there’re over 3,000 CIT programs across the country. But what really hits home for me is that these families that do call the police are in a desperate situation, where they really don’t know what else to do.”

On understanding mental health crises

“When we were in the middle of our crises ourselves, I saw some of the warning signs, but I didn’t see everything. The differences with someone who has diagnosable mental illness and they’re in the middle of their crisis is that all of the things that they’re seeing, feeling, thinking, are real, even though they may not be real to us.”

On mental health crisis training in Indianapolis

“In Indianapolis, we start from the beginning where all of our rookie officers go through 48 weeks of training before they graduate the academy, which is unheard of probably. We chunk training for CIT and response to mental illnesses and crises throughout the first 26 weeks. We sent them out to field training and then we bring them back from advanced school for crisis intervention. And in an effort to change just the way we think because we believe it so prevalent. There are some estimation out there that disturbance runs that involve about 75 percent people who are either exhibiting signs of mental illness or addiction issues. And we need to give our officers every single tool, including technology, to be able to deal with that. But we believe, starting with communication and deescalation is the answer. Realizing that sometimes that isn’t an option when things are happening fast…

But we also take it a step further, where we have a behavioral health unit with mental health liaisons from…hospital who work on the districts with behavioral health units and do follow-ups with either repeat calls or people we know ever we come to know who are experiencing crises and need that kind of help.”

On ultimate goals of mental health crisis training

“I think it’s difficult. We started CIT about the same time that Jake Laird was killed here, which was the officer was killed by the person that was really completely off the grid but had some semi-automatic weapons. We introduced the training at the same time that had occurred, so we had a battle several years ago of how do you balance this [and] what does this mean to officers. What we’ve seen is that more deescalation, more communication, recognize signs of mental illnesses, and medications and learning different ways of talking to persons who are suffering from these things, reducing injuries to officers, to the persons who were suffering from the crises. Ultimately that’s what we want. But if we don’t have the resources, the places to take someone to get the help, [that’s] an ongoing battle that might not be won.”

On what the training means to him

“I wonder for a long time, I have a heart for people. I definitely have a heart for people that can’t help themselves — that’s why I became a police officer so I can stand up for those who couldn’t. Mental illness is one of these things that just I know that it affects people in so many ways. It affects families, moms and dads and brothers and sisters and everyone else. I had no idea all those years, all those runs I was on, all those places I was [at], [that] I ended up being as a police officer was preparing me to save [the] life of my son. And that’s pretty devastating.”

Guest

James Cleek, training bureau commander at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. The department tweets @IMPD_News.

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