In mid-February, three dozen law enforcement officers crowded into a conference room and heard a panel describe what it’s like living with mental illness.
One mother recounted the night her troubled son stabbed two police officers who walked into his bedroom. Another woman recalled how an officer whom she hoped would help her had laughed at her instead.
After listening, an officer later admitted that when he answers a call, “Mental illness is not in my mental Rolodex, or it’s very low.”
A voice rose behind him. “It needs to be in your Rolodex now,” said Matthew Blanchett, a school resource officer. “You’re going to become a leader, someone who sets an example to peers. Then it will be in their Rolodexes, too.”
Mecklenburg launched “Crisis Intervention Team” training more than four years ago. The goal: Teach officers to spot the signs of mental illness so they can defuse, not worsen, volatile situations. Officers who receive the 40 hours of instruction – Blanchett is one of them – praise its usefulness. Teaching examples include how to approach an enraged alcoholic and how to know when listening does the most good.
“We’ve found something that works,” says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Assistant Police Chief Eddie Levins. “Cops don’t want to be social workers, and we used to think our worlds were separate. But guess what? They overlap.”
Across the county, police handle hundreds of cases each year connected by the thread of mental illness. Every day, the county jail holds dozens of prisoners who “need treatment not incarceration,” Sheriff Chipp Bailey says.
In a mental-health emergency, when someone has stopped taking medications or a bout of depression has led to talk of suicide, 911 remains the easiest call for help. That turns police into mental-health professionals, says Sarah Greene, who coordinates the training for the county.
So far, some 500 sheriff deputies and police officers from Charlotte and the surrounding towns have been CIT-certified.
Levins wants that same number trained in his 1,700-officer department. Then, CMPD can send a CIT officer to every “1073” – dispatcher code for a mental-health call. The cost and logistics of training officers for a week has left the department less than halfway to the goal.
In the last six months, CMPD officers, answering calls from families, have killed two men with histories of mental problems. None of the officers had CIT instruction.
While the shootings were found to be justified, Levins says the training might have saved lives.
“It’s not a magic wand. But we have this knowledge and training available. We need to use it.”
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