A bill before the Maine Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Richard S. Malaby, R-Hancock, would ensure that all police departments in the state give at least some of their officers week-long Crisis Intervention Team training in how to de-escalate encounters with people in mental crises.

If Malaby’s bill is enacted, Maine will lead the nation in having such a law. I am impressed, not only because I work with crisis training in Ohio, but also because I probably owe the life of a member of my own family to the professional work of crisis-trained deputies.

Sadly, where crisis training is absent, encounters between law enforcement and people in mental crises often turn deadly. A number of fatal incidents of this type have occurred recently throughout the country. Statistics show us that one in 10 calls that police receive involve people in mental crises. These people are often agitated and confrontational. Taught that their first responsibility is to protect their own lives and those of the public, police sometimes resort to the use of deadly force. Such outcomes are tragic and usually unnecessary.

Last month, the problem was highlighted in a segment of the PBS NewsHour that focused on a series of such shootings in Albuquerque, N.M. The most recent involved a psychotic, homeless man camping illegally in the foothills of Sandia Mountain. Called to deal with this minor infraction, the police arrived, confronted the man, fired a stun grenade, and when that didn’t work, shot him dead. It was all captured on one officer’s helmet camera.

Aside from the human tragedy, such shootings increasingly trigger lawsuits by family members that can result in large financial penalties against the departments involved. Departments without crisis-trained officers are now seen as negligent. Having found that such shootings can be very expensive, Albuquerque now gives all of its officers crisis training.

Ten years ago, here in Ohio, the Franklin County (Columbus) Sheriff’s Department refused to send its officers to take crisis training on the grounds that it was unnecessary since all police get a segment on mental illness in basic training. Then, in December 2005, responding to a call to take a psychotic young man to court-ordered treatment, deputies shot him when he pulled a knife. The family sued and won a $500,000 settlement. Now all Franklin County deputies must take at least 20 hours of mental health training every three years and those who serve mental crisis warrants must take the standard 40-hour crisis training course.

Crisis training begins with an introduction to the major disorders, discussion of experiences the officers have had, and role-plays. Even more important is training in the skills of de-escalation — the use of relaxed body language and calm, respectful, empathetic and disorder-appropriate language. In addition, the officers are given the opportunity to hear from people in recovery from mental illnesses. This is a real eye-opener for many officers, who usually see people with mental illnesses only when they are in crisis. Now they can see them as redeemable human beings.

Here in rural Athens, Ohio, our Crisis Intervention Team Committee has trained more than 300 first responders from nearly 20 departments and agencies in the region, usually a few at a time from each little department. This training gives our graduates a new tool in their toolbox and many actually look forward to calls involving mental health crises. In the 15 years we have been doing this, there have been several calls that, in other communities, might well have resulted in death or injury. There also have been hundreds of incidents in which people in crisis have been politely helped along the road to recovery.

Malaby’s bill is a winner from every standpoint. If enacted, lives will be saved, unnecessary and costly incarcerations will be reduced sharply, many good people will be helped in recovery, and lawsuits resulting in huge financial losses will be avoided.

Tom Walker, a retired Ohio University political science professor, is an active member of the Athens (Ohio) Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


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