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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
It’s a familiar scenario: Officers receive a call about a subject acting erratically. When they arrive at the scene, they recognize the situation as a mental health crisis. This scenario could end many ways, but too often, the individual does not receive effective mental health care that addresses their symptoms or reduces the likelihood of subsequent police encounters.
Jails are overcrowded with people with mental illnesses, and law enforcement agencies are often the first and only responders to mental health crisis situations. Most law enforcement agencies are familiar with crisis intervention team (CIT) training. However, many community leaders are not aware of how CIT programs really work to address mental health crisis situations safely and effectively and the core elements of a successful CIT program. In late 2019, CIT International published a comprehensive guide to the CIT model, providing communities step-by-step guidance on developing successful programs.
Here are some highlights of the new guide, entitled Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Programs: A Best Practice Guide for Transforming Community Responses to Mental Health Crises.
While CIT programs are best known for training officers in crisis response, they are not strictly focused on improving police responses to crisis situations. A CIT program sets ambitious goals for the entire crisis response system. Success requires engagement and accountability from mental health systems, elected leaders and community members, in addition to law enforcement. These goals include the following:
CIT programs address the entire mental health crisis situation; it’s not just about creating more work for law enforcement. The program also addresses how mental health professionals and other supports are involved in crisis response. CIT examines how systemic problems—like outdated policies, poor communication, or a lack of mental health services—contribute to crisis situations. CIT programs bring partners from across mental health and criminal justice systems—together with community advocates—to update policies, improve communication, identify best practices, and advocate for increased mental health services.
This overhaul should be comprehensive, with every partner looking at what it can do to improve its own organization and services and how it communicates and coordinates with others in the crisis response system.
CIT officers are the most visible faces of a CIT program, but a successful CIT program is not led solely by law enforcement. CIT programs should be governed by a steering committee made up of executives from mental health agencies and mental health advocacy groups, along with law enforcement.
A successful CIT program represents an overlap of many different constituents’ interests, including law enforcement, individuals with mental illnesses, family members, and mental health agencies. Shared leadership allows all interests to be represented equally. It also creates mutual accountability and greater opportunities for sharing ideas across systems. Finally, it allows the program to fund-raise and appeal to elected leaders with more flexibility.
The goals of CIT may seem challenging, but there’s significant support for communities starting or continuing this challenge.
Law enforcement leaders have an opportunity to reach out to partners in their community and programs across the country for support in tackling mental health crisis situations. Read the CIT best practices guide to learn more!
Laura Usher, MS
Amy Watson, Ph.D.
President, CIT International Board of Directors
Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
1. CIT advocates know that there are times when an individual with mental illness commits a crime for which arrest is the appropriate response. Sometimes an individual with mental illness may display criminal behavior that is unrelated to mental health concerns or sometimes criminal behavior is so serious that an officer has no choice but to make an arrest.
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