DC police among nations’ best in dealing with the mentally ill

More than 800 officers have been trained in crisis intervention since 2009

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At least half the people shot and killed by police each year in the U.S. have mental health problems and are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to a study.

The Treatment Advocacy Center in 2014 published an analysis of police shooting data spanning 40 years, from 1980 to 2008. The study found that most of the shootings happened after family members, neighbors or bystanders sought help from police because someone was acting suicidal, behaving erratically or threatening violence.

“It can be scary to call the police for help when a loved one is in a mental health crisis,” wrote Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner, a 25-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, in a column aimed at helping family members prepare for calling police during a crisis.

“I can tell you that the more information the dispatcher could tell me while driving to the scene, the more prepared I was,” he added.

Cotner serves as the Dallas PD Crisis Intervention Mental Health Liaison and is a contributor to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, “Ask a Cop” column.

Texas ranks 29 in the list of NAMI’s jurisdictions for diversion efforts in the U.S. according to the center’s comparison across all 50 states. D.C. is at the top of their list, although they warn that it can be a misleading comparison because the district only has one jurisdiction compared to other states where there are hundreds.

“How would you like to read the headline tomorrow, ‘Mentally Ill Man Bleeds Out in the Back of a Squad Car,’” Helen Adamo.

NAMI still commends D.C.’s 100 percent performance in dealing with the mentally ill. The Crisis Intervention Officer program was launched in 2009 by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department along with NAMI and the Department of Behavioral Health.

The program started in 1986 in Memphis when NAMI president Ann Dino’s injured son Bubba was transported to the hospital in a police car because he had a mental illness and the ambulance wouldn’t take him.

In a 2013 article, Dino’s friend Helen Adamo recalled meeting with the mayor and asking him, “How would you like to read the headline tomorrow, ‘Mentally Ill Man Bleeds Out in the Back of a Squad Car?’”

Since then the program, aimed at cutting injuries to police officers, developing a crisis assessment system for people with mental illness, reducing arrests and improving community relations, has spread across more than 2,800 communities in 45 states across the country, according to NAMI’s website.

Every year, NAMI in collaboration with law enforcement and metal health institutions, helps train hundreds of officers in dealing with the mentally ill. In D.C. it has decreased the injuries, arrests, response times, and increased the access of mental health care access for patients, according to a MPD annual trend report.

Graph courtesy of DC Crisis Intervention Officer (CIO) Program Annual Trend Report.

Between 2011 and 2015 specially trained officers here responded to more than 3,700 calls involving mental health patients in D.C. District four has the highest number of calls, most of them involve disorderly conduct, suicide threats or attempts, MPD data show. Sector four is located in the northwest corner of the district.   

Every year MPD hosts four to five crisis intervention classes where more than 800 officers have been trained. The program provides officers with 40 hours of intensive training where they have personal interaction with people who’ve experienced a mental health crisis and their families.

They also learn verbal de-escalation skills, and scenario based training on how to respond to these situations so they don’t end up with anyone hurt or dead.

MPD was not available to comment for this story. Several attempts to reach, NAMI, and the D.C. Department of Mental Health were unsuccessful.

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