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Reducing Bias toward Mental Illness among Law Enforcement

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.    
 - W.E.B. DuBois


Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

In December 2009, Linda Hicks, a mentally ill, elderly African-American woman, was shot and killed by Toledo police in her bed. Hicks was not a violent felon. She was suffering a psychotic break and her experience was not momentarily grounded in reality. So, when the police officers arrived at her adult group home after being called by her caretaker, they found her in her upstairs room, holding sewing scissors under a pillow.

Perhaps the responding officers were aggressive in their command-and-control crisis intervention techniques. Maybe Hicks was confused, fearful of police and possibly paranoid.  Or, conceivably, in confronting her, the officers did not allow Ms. Hicks to maintain her own safe space and so she felt terrified and threatened.

Sequentially, the encounter led not to de-escalation and the older woman’s calming down but to an escalation of the situation resulting in the officers’ use of deadly force. Hicks died after receiving two shots to the head.

Distressingly, this was the fifth officer-involved killing of 2009, an abnormally high number of shootings.

Police officers must make split-second decisions in high-pressure situations. Yet, they, like nearly all of us, bring implicit and explicit biases to their jobs – including stigmatizing beliefs about the mentally ill as dangerous persons. Blacks bring a fear of police (mis)conduct, to encounters with law enforcement, anticipating negative pressure tactics such as excess physical force, arrest,and apprehension.

At the time of the Hicks incident, it was evident that the Toledo Police Department was not adequately prepared to deal with encounters involving persons with mental distress. I met with then-Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre and Lucas County Commissioners Pete Gerken, Tina Skeldon-Wozniak, and Carol Contrada. The result of our discussions led, rather rapidly, to the implementation of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).

Last week, I wrote about Lucas County’s re-design of its crisis care system for people experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

The CIT is a parallel program to that effort led by mental health clinicians, consumer and family advocates, and police officers.
Over a decade after my conversation with the Lucas County Commissioners, our local Mental Health & Recovery Services Board still trains local law enforcement on how to interact with people they encounter with mental health or substance abuse issues or issues related to a developmental disability.

The CIT training has three goals:

·         Improve officer and individual safety

·         Increase law enforcement’s knowledge of community resources

·         Redirect individuals with a mental illness, and/or an addiction, and/or developmental disorders who are in crisis into the appropriate health care system

This last issue is crucial to our community.  Studies show that African-Americans are almost half as likely to seek treatment for mental health issues than other groups.  Training officers to re-direct individuals to appropriate care goes well beyond safely managing an individual interaction—it creates the chance for long-term change.

I spoke with police officers who completed the training. They remarked that they were grateful to understand the recovery process better. Studies also show that after participation in CIT, officers tend to transport more individuals to mental health services than officers who have not received training.

To date, the program has trained 1,244 members of local law enforcement.  That includes local police departments, correctional officers, hospital security, park rangers, court officials, fire/EMS responders, and University police.  National studies have also shown that CIT programs reduce workers’ compensation claims and absenteeism among law enforcement officers.

The training is a significant undertaking, spanning five days and 40 hours.  Importantly, training is taught by 27 instructors with specific subject matter expertise, including from the Mental Health system, the University of Toledo, Developmental Disabilities, and psychiatrists.

Many of the trainees have said that the training’s turning point is the site visits made to the State Psychiatric Hospital, Wernert Center, Lott Industries and Rescue Mental Crisis. 

During these site visits, the officers have the opportunity to interact directly with individuals with lived experience.  The understanding gained in these interactions is critical to reducing stigma and increasing knowledge of (and compassion for) what a person in a crisis might be experiencing.

In the words of one officer who completed CIT training, “Many people do not understand the patience and restraint needed to help/handle a person in crisis successfully.”

As a result, CIT-trained officers have reported acquiring improved knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes of de-escalation strategies. According to research, these officers are also likely to use less force in their encounters with people with mental illness, compared to others without crisis training.

In the final part of the CIT training, clinical professionals from the mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disability fields attend and participate in role-playing exercises with training participants.

Lucas County was the second county in Ohio to begin offering this training.  Our local CIT is now in its 10th year.  We are often attracted to “the flavor of the month,” but the CIT training is an example of the long-term, sustained effort needed to create change.

Today, the CIT program is integrated with local law enforcement and with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

There is always much to think about during Black History Month.  We cannot forget those who are struggling with Mental Health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities.

Neither should we allow our advocacy to slacken. The demand for improvement in law enforcement encounters with those who suffer from mental illness must go on. Let us continue to reduce the impact of negative bias toward mental illness within the criminal justice context.

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org



Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/11/21 09:27:28 -0500.



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