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Mental Health Training Reduces Police Calls, Injuries and Arrests in Centre County

by on March 14, 2014 1:18 PM

There were threatening letters and fears of a conspiracy involving law enforcement. The FBI and other agencies got involved. Local police were receiving calls on a regular basis related to the author. It appeared he was on the verge of being arrested.

"He felt people were intentionally targeting him, that he was being targeted by agencies in our area," says Chris Weaver, a detective with the State College Police Department.

It turns out the man was not a criminal, but suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was in need of mental health treatment. A new, collaborative initiative by law enforcement and mental health agencies allowed police to recognize the needs of the man and connect him with appropriate services.

"We were really able to effectively deal with that situation, where (previously) that would have resulted probably in an arrest," Weaver says.

The Centre County Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, is a partnership between police, EMS, the 911 telecommunications center, Centre County prison, mental health agencies and advocates, and The National Alliance for The Mentally Ill. There are 164 first responders in Centre County who are trained in CIT.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency recently issued a two-year $69,000 grant to the Centre County CIT allowing for continued local training as well as training other first responders throughout the state. The team conducted a training session Friday at the Ramada Inn with police officers from 18 counties in Pennsylvania – where similar teams are in formation stages or do not yet exist.

The initiative provides a law enforcement-based model for crisis invention and de-escalation in situations involving those suffering from a mental illness or a life crisis, such as the loss of a loved one or other trauma.

Centre County formed a CIT in 2011 "to take down the barrier between law enforcement and mental health community," says Tracy Small, coordinator for the program.

The goal is to change a police situation that in the past could escalate due to the perception a person is uncooperative with police – which could result in an officer injury, the suspect being injured, and police arresting the suspect. By recognizing signs of mental illness, whether it is a temporary or long-term ailment, police can utilize alternative approaches to keep the situation from escalating.

Ferguson Township Police Sgt. Robert Glenny says the CIT formed locally in part due to an increase in mental health related calls that often resulted police officer injuries and arrests.

"We wanted to maximize our resources by trying to make sure we were being as effective as we could because there had to be a better way, and I think we found it." Glenny says. "We are a public service agency, we are not a public arresting agency."

Instead of an aggressive approach that could become "hands on," officers are trained to keep situations calm while connecting a person to mental health and other services the person may need.

If the officer spends time talking with the person, collecting relevant information, and connecting them to services, the result is fewer calls to police in the future. It also reduces the likelihood of suicide calls, barricade situations and shootings, police say.

"We maybe can prevent a suicide. We maybe can prevent a critical incident...that none of us want to see," Weaver says.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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