Lawrence police aim to have all officers complete Crisis Intervention Training to address those in mental health crises
When 18-year-old Joseph Jennings, of Ottawa, was fatally shot by Ottawa police officers in August 2014, it was the end of a life riddled by seizures, migraines and depression, Jennings’ aunt, Brandy Smith, said after the incident.
Smith said her nephew had attempted suicide at her home 12 hours before his death. He’d been admitted to the hospital following the attempt in an apparent mental health crisis, and had been released just three hours before his confrontation with police.
“He was very intelligent, loved animals and his family,” Smith told the Journal-World last year. “He will be missed.”
A concerned citizen had called 911, reporting a young man was “waving a handgun and putting the weapon in his waistband” in the Orscheln Farm and Home parking lot, 2008 S. Princeton St. in Ottawa, the Journal-World reported after the incident. When officers arrived, they believed there was an imminent danger when Jennings pulled an item from his waistband and pointed it toward them.
The officers opened fire. They would later discover that the suspicious item was a pair of sunglasses, according to a report issued by the Franklin County Attorney’s Office on the death.
The shooting was ruled justified.
Stepping in early
In Lawrence, police are making strides to de-escalate situations before use of force becomes necessary, especially when it comes to mental health crises. At the Nehemiah Action Assembly at the Lied Center in May, sponsored by local faith coalition Justice Matters, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib told the 1,700 attendees that he planned to have all Lawrence officers within three years complete a 40-hour training course, known as Crisis Intervention Training, on how to handle encounters with people in mental health crises.
That timeline has sped up recently, with the goal now to have all officers trained by August 2017. Khatib said in an email that a plan for the training has been in the works for “a couple years,” but Justice Matters’ efforts in advocating for and engaging in discussion about Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, “helped (the police department) move up our time table for that 100 percent accomplishment.”
“I was first asked about (CIT) when I became the chief, so you can see how long we have been working on it,” Khatib said in an email. “There are many training needs for the limited amount of time and the community discussion and interest has helped us focus and try to make this happen sooner.”
Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement focuses on defusing crisis situations, Justice Matters organizer Ben MacConnell said. Justice Matters had spent six months researching community mental health solutions, which prompted the group’s interest in having CIT in Lawrence.
“CIT helps folks understand the underlying issues beneath the situation,” MacConnell said. “They can ascertain if it’s not really a criminal problem but a mental health issue.”
While each community develops its own CIT curriculum to address local needs, the basic approach is outlined by the International Crisis Intervention Team. Training consists of 40 hours of in-classroom training, including education on mental illnesses and their signs and symptoms, overviews of local mental health organizations and their services and training in crisis de-escalation techniques.
Last year, the department helped form the Douglas County CIT council to help define the department’s training, which will start in September and continue through August 2017. According to Khatib, the department has already accomplished its goal to have all officers trained in mental health first-aid.
“We know we can’t train everyone at once, so the plan is to start with people that have an interest so as to build positive energy and momentum for the training among officers,” Khatib said in an email.
Police departments across the country have been adopting CIT plans for years. The Memphis, Tenn., police department implemented CIT in 1988. Since then, injuries to those suffering from mental illnesses have decreased 40 percent, and officer injury rates have dropped by 85 percent, according to CIT International.
MacConnell said a major benefit of CIT is that it prepares law enforcement to better avoid tragic outcomes like Jennings’.
“There are police all over the county shooting people and getting lawsuits when it is someone with a mental illness,” MacConnell said. “(CIT) pushes up against classic police training where (officers) want to take control with a commanding voice. There are situations where that’s not appropriate.”
Fortunately, Lawrence has not seen an incident like Jennings’ in recent years, but Lawrence certainly has its share of mental health crises. A May 22 city staff memo presented to city commissioners said that between Jan. 1 and April 30, officers responded to approximately 750 calls related to suicide-related calls or requests to check an individual’s welfare.
The Rev. Kathy Williams, Justice Matters leader and pastor at First United Methodist Church, said she admires that the Lawrence police take a proactive, instead of reactive, position on addressing community needs. Khatib, for example, has ordered all officers to read the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the police department in Ferguson, Mo., following the controversial police shooting of an unarmed man there.
“The sad thing is police departments often get serious about this training only after an untrained officer mishandles a mental health call resulting in death and lawsuits,” Williams said. “Fortunately, our police chief would rather prevent a tragedy than wait for one to happen.”
Moving forward, Justice Matters hopes to see Douglas County open a mental health crisis center, mental health court and diversion program.
County officials are currently studying options for expansion of the county jail and the construction of a separate intervention center, where nonviolent inmates can be diverted away from the jail for mental health crises or substance abuse problems.
MacConnell and Williams said the CIT and a mental health emergency intervention center would complement each other, allowing officers to further help those suffering while also cutting down the Douglas County Jail population numbers.
“We were astounded to discover how much responsibility related to mental health has fallen onto our police, courts and jails,” said Williams. “We definitely have a lot of work to do to get beyond crisis management. But we have to start somewhere and (getting all officers through CIT) is a strong first step.”