How Crisis Intervention Training Can Help Police Officers Respond to People with Mental Illness

By: Annie Uetz

Interagency Collaboration Mental Health Policing April 8, 2020

With Des Moines—the state capitol—as its county seat, Polk County is the largest county in Iowa. Yet, despite continued population growth over the last 20 years, mental health funding for the county has remained stagnant. Like many jurisdictions across the United States, we are consistently seeking ways to work within these constraints to improve resources and treatment options for people with mental illness. This includes reducing the number of people with mental illness in jail, and diverting them to the treatment that they need and deserve.

Law enforcement officers are often the first point of contact for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis. Because of this, one of the solutions our county has implemented is the introduction of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in our law enforcement departments.

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s online Police-Mental Health Collaboration Toolkit, CIT training is an extensive curriculum that teaches an approach to responding to people with mental illness. It emphasizes understanding of mental illness and incorporates the development of communication skills, practical experience, and role-playing. In 2012, the Des Moines Police Department made a commitment to train all new recruits in CIT.

CIT training has better prepared officers to work with individuals with mental illness. This has resulted in fewer arrests of people with mental illness, increased understanding of mental illness, and awareness of what to look for in people who might be in crisis. The Des Moines Police Department, along with all law enforcement agencies in Polk County, works closely with the Mobile Crisis Team that is dispatched through the police. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Mobile Crisis Team was dispatched over 1700 times. Only 15 of the individuals involved in these dispatches went to jail, while 507 were taken to the hospital.

With three deputies trained and working strictly with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office also made a commitment to expand the use of CIT within the Sheriff’s Office and throughout the other law enforcement agencies in Polk County. Five additional deputies/officers were trained as CIT trainers and an official mental health team was formed. In February, Polk County was chosen as one of the Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund sites, in part for their work on this issue. While small jurisdictions face several barriers to training—including the cost of pulling an officer off of street patrol, and the cost of the training itself—this grant will allow the Polk County Sheriff’s office to sponsor two additional CIT trainings at no extra cost. It will also enable one more office to be trained as a trainer.

Along with training seasoned peace officers, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office wanted to make sure CIT training was sustainable. Since most law enforcement in the State of Iowa trains at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), Polk County partnered with ILEA, Broadlawns Medical Center, and NAMI of Greater Des Moines to add CIT Recruit Academy training to the Basic Academy curriculum. This allows CIT to be spread across Iowa to the state’s many rural communities.

We have learned several valuable lessons through this training expansion:

  • Having the right instructors is very important. Having both a CIT-trained officer along with a mental health professional is very beneficial to apply what is being taught to the peace officers’ duties.
  • It is also important for trainings to involve the voices of people with mental illness and their families. Our trainings offer panel discussions with these individuals, which helps law enforcement officers put a face to what they are learning.
  • Immersion experiences can give officers a glimpse into the lived experience of someone suffering from mental illness. We use Hearing Voices That Are Distressing, an experience that allows officers to understand the difficulties of daily living for someone who hears voices.
  • Educating officers on available community resources, and where individuals can be diverted is invaluable. Officers can’t divert someone from jail if they don’t know what the alternative options are.

Through these shared lessons, and the success Polk County has already experienced in reducing the number of people with mental illness in our jail, we remain committed to expanding and improving our CIT training capabilities to most effectively serve people in need of mental health treatment and services.