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Less Escalation & More Resolution: Crisis Intervention Researcher Says Police Should Play Supporting Role In Mental Health Calls

Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.
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Often police interactions can escalate, instead of end, violence for someone having a mental health crisis, Amy Watson says.

Police respond to all kinds of emergencies — including situations that involve mental, behavioral and social vulnerabilities that can quickly escalate. Since 2015, over 1,400 people that have been shot and killed by police had a known mental illness. Here in Milwaukee, one such instance was the shooting death of Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park in 2014.

>> Listen to more of WUWM’s Policing In Wisconsin: Has Anything Changed Since Last Summer's Protests?

Amy Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. Her work involves studying issues around people with serious mental illness coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Her research focuses on the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model and looking at other ways to reduce or eliminate the role of law enforcement in mental health crisis response.

Watson says people with serious mental illnesses are often overrepresented in the criminal justice system due to issues like higher rates of misdemeanor charges and lower rates of early release when serving prison time. She says for some people, entering the criminal justice system is the easiest way for them to get help.

“Criminal justice involvement sometimes made it easier for them to access services, which is really unfortunate cause I’d have people ask me, you know, ‘How do I get my family member connected to care?’ and you know, the fastest way was to have them arrested, which is just backwards,” she says.

One of the problems Watson identified was the fact that interactions with police officers were often escalating violence. She says police officers usually have less than 10 hours of training related to responding to someone having a mental health problem and that they often enter an interaction with a mentally ill person with the idea that they are more dangerous.

“Going in and expecting something to be dangerous, unfortunately, can actually elicit the response from the person that you’re trying to avoid,” notes Watson. “If [someone is] experiencing a mental health crisis, they’re also feeling out of control, scared and vulnerable. So you put that together and if it’s not handled well, could escalate very quickly.”

CIT programs provide 40 hours of training for officers and teaches them how to work to de-escalate situations when responding. The CIT model also works to connect officers with mental health resources so that an officer isn’t walking away from an interaction without giving additional resources.

NAMI of Wisconsin works to get CIT trainings out to different communities in the state, and the Milwaukee Police Department initially implemented voluntary CIT training and has since mandated the training for all officers in their pre-service training according to Watson.

The model also calls for an increase in nonpolice responders who can be called to address mental health issues that don’t require an officer. But Watson says that can be difficult because there is a shortage of mental health care workers.

“We need to look at, sort of, what are the options for if calls come into 911, what are the options of sending it to some other type of responder,” she says.

“I think for the most part a large proportion of the calls that [the police] are currently responding to could be better handled by other responders. The issue we have there though is that we have to do some workforce capacity development so that we have those other responders that are prepared and able to go out ... and are comfortable responding in the community,” adds Watson.

When it comes to developing new programs or adding additional services to existing operations, Watson says support needs to come from the community to achieve better outcomes.

“Having communities involved in, kind of, developing what kind of response options do we want to have, holding the mental health system accountable for having resources available, you know, ideally before people are in a crisis that requires emergency response,” she says.

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