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Mental health training not designed for all police officers

via New Castle County Police Department

As NPR reported last year, one quarter of all U.S. police shootings involve mental illness.


Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly reports on what’s being done in Delaware to help educate officers about how to handle someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

Dr. Joshua Thomas is Executive Director for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Delaware, a mental health non-profit that runs a 40-hour intensive mental health training program for law enforcement called Crisis Intervention Team training.


Thomas says CIT training is intended to create specialized officers, and a specialized response to mental health crises.


"As we know with mental health crises, there’s a special component to that," Thomas said. "And I think a certain type of officer is going to be drawn and passionate about intervening in those circumstances. That they’re going to develop a greater understanding and be more receptive to understanding the dynamics of mental illness."


Thomas says having 20-25% of a police force trained in CIT is considered a national best practice, but it’s more important someone who is capable of handling mental health crises is available 24-7.


For smaller towns like South Bethany and Ocean View – with only 6-7 officers – the only way for someone properly trained to always be available is for all of the officers to be trained in CIT- which they are.


But for larger police forces – like Wilmington’s – Thomas says the emphasis should be on ensuring officers capable of responding effectively to mental health crises are selected in the first place.


Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings agrees.


"Not every officer has the ability to be the CIT officer that responds to the scene and able to administer that to the other officers," Cummings said. "But every officer should be aware of the CIT training that’s out there and have access to it."


Mental health crisis response shouldn’t be limited to officers and first responders, says Thomas.


The non-profit’s training originally designed for police officers is being expanded to include those involved in dispatching 911 calls to officers.


“That’s also going to help us identify if those answering the calls understand it’s a mental health crisis, it’s going to prompt them to send the appropriately trained officers to the scene," Thomas said.


He says sometimes a mental health crisis can look like something else, such as a domestic disturbance.

NAMI Delaware will be hosting two CIT trainings in October, one in Dover and one in conjunction with their annual conference on October 5th.


Retired Major Sam Cochran – one of the founders of CIT – will speak about how to turn the program from a training program to a community program.


Thomas encourages not only police officers but attorneys, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to attend.


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