Analyzing the police’s response to mental illness - Sovereign Health Group
Articles / Blog
03-14-16 Category: Mental Health

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Police shot dead 462 people in the first six months of 2015; of these, 124 were mentally ill. Some of these shootings, no doubt, were suicide by cop, but the majority involved a distraught individual, most likely off medication, brandishing a weapon or acting in a threatening manner. This article will explore alternative methods for how police can interact with the mentally ill without putting bullets in them.

Death of a 17-year-old

Video cameras in the lobby of a Texas police station recorded the death of 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard in January 2015. Coignard entered the Longview Police Department just after 6 p.m. There are multiple versions of the video on YouTube. In this four-minute version, the video shows Coignard enter the empty lobby. She waits until an officer walks through the same door. Following a brief conversation, a struggle ensues.

After the officers wrestle her to a lobby bench, Coignard reaches into her purse. The officers draw their weapons. Coignard charges the first officer. The abridged video cuts out the moment when the officer’s fires, leaving Coignard face-first on the floor. Police later discovered that Coignard had a butter knife and note on which she had written she was mentally ill and needed to be locked up.

CIT and the science of de-escalation

Glen Derr, the officer who shot her, did not have crisis intervention team (CIT) training. There is no telling whether events would have transpired different if Derr had the training. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), CIT-trained officers have reduced the rearrest rate for the mentally ill by 58 percent. CIT also saves money. The average annual cost to incarcerate a mentally ill inmate in Detroit is $30,000; it costs a third of that to divert the individual to a mental health treatment facility.

On average, police officers receive about two hours training on how to deal with a mentally ill suspect. According to CIT International, CIT officers receive upwards of 40 hours of training, particularly in the science of de-escalation. De-escalation techniques focus primarily on nonverbal and verbal cues. CIT notes 65 percent of communication involves nonverbal behavior. A CIT-trained officer learns how to appear calm, maintain limited eye contact, retain a neutral facial expression, never touch or gesture and, above all, never turn his or her back on a suspect.

With respect to verbal communication, though it may be counterintuitive, CIT teaches officers not to inquire about the suspect’s feelings. Pop analysis can only inflame the situation. CIT-trained officers learn a number of other “don’ts,” such as

  • Do not be defensive.
  • Do not get loud.
  • Do not argue.

They also learn a variety of “do’s,” including:

  • Do be respectful.
  • Do be honest with the individual.
  • Do empathize with the individual’s feelings, but do not excuse his or her behavior.
  • Do respond selectively.
  • Do suggest nonthreatening ways to diffuse the situation, such as offering the individual food or drink.

CIT began in Memphis in 1988 after officers killed a mentally ill man. Roughly 2,800 CIT programs operate nationwide – constituting 15 percent of police jurisdictions. Statistics are scant on how many lives CIT has saved. To the parents of Kristiana Coignard, one would have been enough.

Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating mental illness. Our program for treating depression provides a good snapshot of the quality of our care. If you or a loved one suffers from mental illness, call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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