/ Modified mar 5, 2014 10:12 a.m.

Training Prepares Police to Respond in Mental Health Crises

Crisis Intervention Training raises awareness, reduces use of force, but did not take hold in Southern Arizona until tragedy in 2000.


On a crisp Friday morning, Tucson police try to talk a jumper into getting off a ledge.

The jumper - a man who calls himself Raymond - told officers he’s scanning the city below for crime, and that he has shoes that will help him swoop down to save potential victims. He was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and officers on the scene worked to bring him to safety without using force.

The police took the scene seriously, even though no one’s life was actually on the line. They and Raymond, an actor, were taking part in Pima County’s Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT.

Their role-playing session on the ledge was just part of an intense 40-hour program that teaches officers what to do when they’re called to help someone who’s having a mental health crisis.

“We have attorneys come out,” said CIT coordinator James Kirk, who served as the Tucson Police Department’s Behavioral Sciences Unit sergeant until his retirement in January 2014. “A judge comes out and he talks about mental illness. We have a psychologist come out and talk about different diagnoses and different medications, and how to interact with somebody who might be in an acute state. We have a de-escalation expert come out.”

The idea, Kirk said, is to help officers understand psychiatric crises from many different angles. From this range of experts, they learn about the medical, legal and day-to-day realities of mental illness.

Officers also talk to people who are living with mental illness—along with their friends and family members—about what it’s like to experience a mental health crisis, and what has helped or harmed them when dealing with law enforcement. They learn new techniques for de-escalating a crisis without using force, and then practice these techniques in extensive role-playing sessions.

Kirk ran CIT trainings for eight years, along the way helping to train SWAT team members, probation officers, and police from Tucson, Marana and the Pima County Sheriff’s department. As many as 11 different local jurisdictions have taken part, and December 2013 saw its biggest CIT class yet.

The program can have a huge impact on even the most seasoned officers, Kirk said.

“I’ll be the first to admit that, being a cop for 25 years, we get a little cynical and you start looking at everyone in the same light,” Kirk said. “And you come here, and you hear officers go, ‘You know, I need to take a step back and maybe take a look at individuals in a different light. And maybe consider that there may be other factors that I don’t know about.’”

The classes aren’t just engaging, they’re also effective. A 2011 study by researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that CIT-trained officers are significantly less likely to use force with someone in a psychiatric crisis.

Crisis Intervention Training was developed in Memphis, Tenn., in the late 1980s. But it took over a decade to make its way to Tucson—and its path here began with a tragedy.

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