Every day, my news feed serves up a few stories about local police departments undergoing Crisis Intervention Team training. Yesterday was Northern Wisconsin and upstate New York. CIT is fine. It provides some good resources to police officers, who generally seem to respond well to the training. It’s resolutely pathologizing, relying on a medical model of disability, focusing on on-site pseudo-diagnosis as a “mental health” case. These stories tend to be superficial and rarely look at the bigger picture of social context.
The New York Times, demonstrating why it’s an important paper, recently tried to do better. Erica Goode, one of their feature reporters, published a long story on Portland, OR, and its approach to mental-health policing, published a few weeks back. It’s a good piece of reporting, though of course leaves a lot out (and even unasked)
Portland PD had a bad history when it came to ugly use of force, eventually being investigated by DoJ and agreeing to a number of major reforms. The NYT piece opens with an incident of a man with a sword on a beach at midnight. In the past, departmental policy would have mandated the officers engage, and they probably would have killed him. Now, their “just walk away” policy enabled the officers to leave him there (after some hours).
My questions: What forms of community mental health supports are available to the man with the sword? Was there a way for officers to direct him to getting help, rather than criminalizing him, and was that way available 24/7? Was there a mental health professional on call to come help, or were only armed law enforcement dispatched? Remember, even armed law enforcement who specialize in mental health are NOT licensed mental health professionals, and they would not claim to be.
Erica Goode, the reporter, recognizes this, writing:
Whether the training leads to less use of force by officers, however, is still an open question: The findings of studies have been mixed, although one study to be published later this year suggests that Portland’s program, which is based on C.I.T., is having an effect. And training alone is not enough, experts say. For the approach to be effective, it needs the full backing of a police department’s leadership, continual checks on its effectiveness, and collaboration with the mental health community.
“The training is great, but it’s not magic,” said Laura Usher, coordinator of crisis intervention team training for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The thing that actually transforms the way the system works is when everyone gets together.”
I recently spent a few days in San Antonio, where they are trying to build systems, and am looking at other models. We also need to flip our questions around and take a social-model, cross-disability, approach.
Leroy Moore, one of the foremost activists around policing and disability (especially in the Bay Area), recently told me this: “I want us to stop asking what the police need, and start asking what the community needs.”
CIT-trained officers is likely part of what the community needs, but it’s very partial.