The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Police Need to Work More with Mental Health Professionals Faculty, police, and alumna discuss evaluations of crisis intervention efforts

Police Mental Health DiscussionResponding to mental health calls are among the most challenging situations police officers face as they are frequently at the front lines of dealing with crisis situations.

“This puts a huge burden on police officers,” said Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and co-director of the University’s Crime Lab. Pollack and SSA doctoral student Tonie Sadler organized the “Keep Calm and Evaluate: The Crisis Intervention Pilot program as a Case Study on Program Evaluation” on January 8 at SSA.

In Chicago, some encounters between police and people with mental illnesses have ended in police involved shootings.

“If we are to prevent future tragedies, then we should be ready to invest in a more responsive mental health system and relieve the police of the burden of being the primary, and often sole, responders,” said Matthew Epperson, Assistant Professor at SSA, a conference presenter.

The session provided opportunities for social workers and others to learn about evaluations of a police department intervention project as well as learn about the advantages of effective evaluations. “Keep Calm and Evaluate” was presented by the Chicago Department of Public Health and the University of Chicago Crime and Health Labs.

Police officers discussed their experience with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and the Crisis Intervention Pilot Program (CIPP) models. Amy Watson, AM ‘97, PhD ’01, associate professor at the University of Illinois’ Jane Addams College of Social Work, shared her research on the issue.

She said that preliminary findings show a variation by police district in the number of officers trained in CIT and the responses to mental health calls. The department needs more police officers trained in CIT, she said.

Sergeant Lori Cooper, commanding officer for the Chicago Police Department’s Special Activities Section, said the system works best when the providers of mental health services and the police work together. Frequently people who are experiencing a mental health crisis are taken to hospitals by police after a call and then released in a revolving situation that often does not lead to sufficient treatment.

“We have 22,000 calls a year that are registered as mental health related, but that number could be as high as 175,000,” she said. Each year, the police in Chicago respond to about 2 million calls.

The program, initiated in 2004, is modeled after a similar program in Memphis, TN. The Chicago department has 1,850 officers trained in CIT, roughly fifteen percent of all CPD officers, Cooper said. In responding to calls, the department tries to send an officer with the training, but one is not always available.

For officers who volunteer to join the CIT program, the basic CIT training consists of 40 hours covering topics of psychotropic medications, substance abuse, intellectual disability, and instruction in dealing with risk assessment and crisis intervention. “We also get the perspective from the families involved and hear from a panel of mental health resource providers,” said Officer Kurt Gawrisch, a CIT specialist and instructor. “An unusual feature of the training is role playing in which people who are in treatment for mental illness engage with police as they learn to deal with situations.”

The program has been expanded to include two 40 hour advanced trainings on CIT–Youth and CIT-Veterans. Watson has completed a project “Testing a Systems Level Intervention to Improve Police Response to Persons with Mental Illness: CIT in Chicago,” with funding from the National Institute on Mental Health. She is also currently engaged in a project, “CIT and Mental Health Service Accessibility in Police Encounters: Impact on Outcomes for Persons with Serious Mental Illnesses.”

“Police officers with the training are more patient and more likely to problem solve to link a person with mental health issues with appropriate care,” she said.

The pilot evaluation showed a need to improve the use of mental health services so that police contacts, arrests, and transportation of people with mental illnesses to hospitals can be reduced.

 William Harms