Helping Police Respond To People With Mental Illness

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Associate Professor Amy Watson

What happens when a police officer is dispatched on a call of disturbing the peace?  What happens when, upon arrival, the officer encounters someone experiencing a mental health crisis? Amy Watson, PhD, is conducting research to explore the options.

Recent media headlines have illustrated the tragic results when these interactions go poorly. What many people do not realize is that social workers, in conjunction with others working in the mental health and criminal justice systems, advocates and other community stakeholders, have developed a model for improving police response to mental health crisis. The Crisis Intervention Team Model (CIT) includes training police to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness and de-escalate crisis situations; local partnerships between law enforcement, mental health service providers and other community stakeholders; and changes to policies and procedures.

Faculty researcher, Associate Professor Amy Watson, has been involved with the Chicago Police Department CIT program since its inception. Through a field placement with the Mental Health Association, Watson made connections that allowed her to contribute to the pilot Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) project in Chicago. Since that time, she has conducted several federally funded studies of the program. Her work with CIT earned her the Young Researcher of the Year Award from NAMI Chicago and in 2013, the Researcher of the Year Award from CIT International.

The goals of the CIT model are to increase safety in police encounters and prevent the unnecessary incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses by diverting them from the criminal justice system to the mental health system. These programs have become increasingly popular, but little research has been performed to determine how and under what conditions CIT interventions are effective for improving linkages to services and the longer-term outcomes for those referred to mental health services. After a first successful study involving four districts of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the current phase of Professor Watson’s research involves police in all 22 districts of the CPD and examines the complex relationships between the availability of mental health services community characteristics and officer training. It concentrates on the short- and long-term outcomes of encounters between persons with serious mental illnesses and police officers. The major variables under study are whether the officer responding to a call and involving an individual with a serious mental illness has had CIT training, the availability of the mental health services, in the area of the encounter, and the outcomes for the person with mental illness as measured at regular intervals over a one-year period following the police encounter.

Watson’s study is expected to determine the immediate and longer term mental health and criminal justice outcomes for persons with serious mental illness and whether, and the degree to which, these depend on CIT-trained officers and availability of nearby mental health services. Findings from the preliminary study indicate that CIT-trained officers tended to use less force as subject resistance increases in mental health interactions. Thus, it appears that CIT trained officers are better able to de-escalate encounters with persons experiencing mental health crises. Watson also found that these officers were more likely to try to link people to services either by providing them transport or assisting them in contacting their mental health provider.

The other variable, the availability of interventions, is still under study. The city has 11 or 12 designated drop-off points for adults and a couple that are designated for youth where police officers bring individuals in need of emergency psychiatric evaluation. These drop off sites are emergency departments that provide assessment and acute stabilization, sometimes followed by admission to an inpatient psychiatric unit.

“What we are finding is a need for additional options for officers to direct people to, such as a crisis triage or mental health respite centers, in addition to more community based mental health services in general,” said Watson.