provide suggestions and feedback on what works and what
doesn’t, as well as raise funds, among other roles.
And the team members learn from each other, says Scrivner.
“Psychologists get out of their counseling offices and out on
the streets with the cops,” she says. “The cops quit looking at
things as either ‘an arrest’ or a ‘not an arrest’ situation. People
in the community start saying, ‘Maybe the cops aren’t as bad as
we thought.’ And police see the community as having a lot of
information that’s really very valuable to them.”
A centerpiece of the effort is a 40-hour mental health
training for police officers, about five times longer than
standard police training on mental illness. One part of the
training is didactic, where experts share information about
mental illnesses, medications, behaviors and other relevant
topics. Officers also learn de-escalation skills, such as how to
move into a scene calmly and slowly, and how to effectively talk
with and listen to the person in crisis.
In addition, the training includes small group meetings that
bring together police, people with mental illnesses and their
family members — conversations that give officers a more
candid sense of the challenges these families face.
A central goal of the program is to address police stigma
about mental illness, which in turn can improve community
views about police, Cochran says. Police officers tend to enter
police work with high ideals for serving and protecting the
public. But that rosy view can quickly fade as officers face the
realities of the job, and they can succumb to using rough or
stereotyping language as a way of coping with a highly stressful
job. Educating officers about mental illness helps to break
this cycle by providing enough education for them to change
their understanding of people with mental illness; meanwhile,
pairing community partners with police helps civilians soften
the view of police as tough-guy punishers, he says.
Since their beginning, crisis intervention teams have assumed
a variety of forms depending on their location and makeup.
One of the most robust crisis intervention teams in the
country is in central Virginia, which includes Charlottesville,
Albemarle County and a large rural area. While the Memphis
model suggests that at least a quarter of the patrol force in an
urban area should be trained, the central Virginia team has
trained more than 70 percent of its patrol officers and all of
its emergency dispatchers, in part reflecting the need for as
many responders as possible in less urban areas where there
are fewer responders in general, says Tom von Hemert, the area
The results there have been dramatic. From the time
the program started in 2008 to 2012, the number of cases
resolved on location rose from 550 to 700, the number of
arrests decreased from 50 to 15, the average inmate population
fell from 525 to 425, and both voluntary and involuntary
commitment rates rose significantly, reflecting a greater proper
use of mental health services. Now, von Hemert is applying for
grants to fund a dedicated assessment center and a peer support
specialist who could help people with mental illness who come
to the center reconnect with the community.
Ohio has another strong program, with 86 out of 88
counties participating in crisis intervention teams, says Betsy
Johnson, associate executive director of the National Alliance
on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Ohio and a coordinator for the
state’s crisis intervention team. A unique component is peer
assessment, where teams assess one another rather than relying
on a state-wide oversight process, she says.
“It’s a great concept because the peer assessors, who are
members of local crisis intervention teams, can provide
suggestions to other crisis intervention teams for improvement,”
she says. “But they can also see things other teams are doing well
and implement those ideas in their own communities.”
Some teams also are training both civilian police officers
and police officers with the Veterans Health Administration on
issues involving veterans with mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, readjustment
stress and related substance use (see sidebar). It’s an important
population to reach, says Tom Kirchberg, PhD, chief of
psychology at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center,
because without the right interventions, veterans can easily
wind up in the criminal justice system.
Here to stay?
If all goes well, crisis intervention teams will continue to thrive
and expand. They and similar programs are becoming such
an integral part of communities that they aren’t likely to be
destroyed by shifting political winds, Scrivner and others say.
Two signs that this is the case: This year, police officers
who went through crisis intervention training in New
Mexico helped pass a $20 million bond issue for emergency
psychiatric care to build a new facility and improve mental
health services in the state.
The one gap in the program appears to be a continued
shortage of funding for community mental health services,
Dupont and others say. So while crisis intervention teams can
deliver top-notch responses at crisis scenes, there aren’t always
enough resources to fully realize the vision of good long-term
That said, the programs are making a lasting impact on
families and communities, says NAMI Ohio’s Johnson, who has
worked with crisis intervention teams in her state since 2006.
“What’s exciting to me is that families are aware that these
teams are out there,” she says. “So they’re far less reluctant
to pick up the phone and call 911 if a loved one is in crisis.
Before Ohio implemented these teams, they would have
waited until they had no choice but to call. By then, it was
often too late.” n
Tori DeAngelis is a journalist in Syracuse, New York.