How Police Officers Are (or Aren’t) Trained in Mental Health

Requirements vary across the U.S., but experts say training is necessary and helpful.
A Capitol Hill police officer stands guard in Washington, D.C., Friday, a day after a woman was shot to death outside the Capitol. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The recent Capitol Hill shooting of an unarmed woman by police officers, and the uncertainty surrounding her mental state at the time she drove her car into a White House barricade, is a stark reminder of the uncomfortable interplay between mental illness and law enforcement in times of crisis.

Without the appropriate amount of mental health training for police, experts say, rash stigmatization and misinterpretation of the intentions of the mentally ill can cause vital errors and ultimately make the difference between life and death.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) strives to increase awareness and understanding of the mentally ill through its partnership with the University of Memphis Crisis Intervention Training Program, but within the law enforcement population, much is still to be done.

Crisis Intervention Training (CIT)—with a 40-hour curriculum—is the most comprehensive police officer mental health training program in the country. According to Laura Usher, CIT program manager at NAMI headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, there are crisis intervention training programs in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia. (States without programs are Delaware, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Rhode Island.)

While there are multiple CIT programs within some counties, many states are barely on the map in terms of the number of counties within each state that have programs. Most states only have CIT programs in one or two counties.

In the D.C. area, the Metropolitan Police Department, the United States Capitol Police Department, and the Georgetown Law School Campus Police Department have partnerships with NAMI. The crisis training programs are not mandatory, though, says NAMI D.C. executive director Sophie Clark.

David Shapiro, training manager for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health—which merged with the Department of Mental Health at the beginning of this month—said that all incoming police recruits in the D.C. area receive some degree of mental health training but did not provide information about number of hours required or number of officers trained.

According to Shennell Antrobus, United States Capitol Police Department (USCP) public information officer, all of the department's officers and recruits receive mental health training. He did not provide information about the number of training hours required or number of officers on the force who are trained. He could not comment on anything related to the recent Capitol crisis, as an investigation is ongoing.

In a statement, Antrobus said the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s Behavioral Science Division partnered with the USCP in 2009 to create a training video providing instructions of how officers should appropriately handle mental health issues.

Usher stressed that the crisis intervention training program isn’t strictly a NAMI program but more of a partnership between local agencies. She said that it’s up to any given community to decide how it wants its law enforcement, mental heath and advocacy agencies to work together.

“For a good CIT program to work, all of these partners need to work together,” Usher said.

For example, law enforcement agencies need to have the authority to drop someone off at a psychiatric outpatient facility if necessary. However, the lack of mental health resources across the U.S. ranges from a deficiency of crisis assessment centers to a shortage of service providers like social workers and psychiatrists, Usher said.

“The default hospital has become the emergency room,” Usher said, adding that most emergency rooms are not equipped to effectively handle psychiatric issues.

“In the meantime, [mentally ill patients] are really suffering,” Usher said.

While money isn’t the deciding factor in the success of a mental health program, it is an important factor, especially within municipal police departments. Usher suggested that the scarcity of monetary and human resources has lead to the drought of mental health training hours officers receive.

“Most law enforcement agencies can’t afford to train everyone,” Usher said. “They’d have to pay someone else overtime, and that can be a big expense, especially if you’re a small office.”

Usher said that many police departments prefer to train only a few specialized officers to deal with crisis issues, rather than making mental health training mandatory.

 “[The department] would be over-resourced for a certain small number of incidents,” Usher said. “Not everyone is well-skilled for a certain task. What most communities want to do is develop a group of officers who are highly trained, and they’re the ones who are called in a crisis.”

But what happens if the first responder isn’t properly trained to handle the situation?

“If the officer knows this is out of his scope, it’s generally best for them to step back, call for backup and not engage beyond their skills,” Usher said.

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Megan Pauly is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois. She specializes in science, health, and national-security reporting.

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