February 1st, 2014

Team hopes to de-escalate situations

New Hampshire’s community based model of treatment for those with mental illness has meant fewer hospital beds and more interaction with law enforcement.

Police officers are often the first line in dealing with crisis situations, says Lt. Ron Mello, who heads up the Manchester Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which began in 2011.

“When you think about it, when I started 27 years ago, at least in Manchester, the number of beds at psychiatric facilities was a lot more than it is now,” he says. “With the reduction in the number of beds available, you are getting a lot of people with severe mental illness being released so to speak and are out interacting with us every day, so there really is a need for that training.”

The Manchester department has 23 officers who are CIT certified, meaning they have gone through a 40-hour class based on the Memphis model (the first police department to establish a crisis intervention team), learning how to “respond more safely and more compassionately when people have a serious mental illness,” says Mello. Officers learn de-escalation techniques aimed at preventing a crisis situation from reaching a point where deadly force might be used.

“CIT officers are also versed in alterative measures as opposed to just arrest. They have a background in services that are available,” he says. “This program can’t just be the police department. We work hand in hand with the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester. They helped us with the training. I am the liaison to the department. We make sure to work together.”

The department tries to reduce the visual and auditory response to a crisis call when they know it concerns someone with a mental illness, Mello says.

“A lot of times [it] can be a little too much for someone who is in a mental health crisis, so we try to reduce that anxiety,” he says. “We have a number of officers at a particular call or scene that we need to keep everybody safe, but if we can do so safely, we just reduce the visual and auditory distractions and use the least amount of officers that are needed to talk to that person in crisis.”

There have been cases where deadly force has been used by police in responding to crisis calls from those with mental illness in New Hampshire, says Mello, but the Manchester Police Department hopes that CIT training helps prevent that in future cases. “The officers still keep an office of safety. It’s always about protecting themselves, the community, and the person that we are dealing with. But, the goal is if we can reduce that interference, it seems to have a better outcome.”

CIT officers volunteer for the training and maintain eight hours of additional training annually. The department tries to have a CIT officer scheduled on every shift, Mello says. Officers maintain their positions with the department. The CIT training is a secondary designation.

All sworn officers in New Hampshire go through some training on how to better deal with calls from those with mental illness while at the academy. CIT training is usually done at the department level, says Ken Norton, LICSW, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire. That means not all police departments in the state will have a specially trained unit like Manchester. “For New Hampshire, many departments feel they just don’t have the capacity or resources to do that level of training for their staff.”

Norton says CIT training is important if department’s can make it happen. NAMI New Hampshire is involved in training the state’s new recruits.

“The goal is to recognize that more knowledge decreases the likelihood that interactions with people with mental illness result in arrests or situations that escalate to a crisis point and so having staff who are more familiar, who have better training, who understand mental illness are better able to de-escalate potentially volatile situations,” Norton says.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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