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Q&A: Giving police officers the tools to deal with a mental health crisis

Mark Benson is the regional CIT coordinator for Central and Southern Illinois.
Collin Schopp
Mark Benson is the regional CIT coordinator for Central and Southern Illinois.

Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, training aims to provide police officers with the right tools for dealing with a mental health crisis.

Mark Benson is the regional CIT coordinator in Central and Southern Illinois. He said the program started in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1980’s. After an officer shot and killed a man in the midst of a crisis, then-Chief Sam Cochran partnered with Memphis University to develop a new training program.

The result is the 40 hour CIT course. Benson said there is also an advanced version of the course available to departments that want it. The first training in Illinois was a class of Chicago police in 2003. Since then, Benson said more than 14,000 Illinois police officers have gone through the training.

“A lot of people become confused and think CIT is a de-escalation program,” Benson said. “And it is. We teach de-escalation skills, and we talk a lot about that. But we also talk about mental health signs and symptoms, co-occurring disorders. We challenge stigma related to mental health issues.”

Officers learn strategies like increasing the amount of time talking to someone in a crisis, while giving them the appropriate amount of space. They learn how to ask helpful questions, or when to wait before trying to engage at all.

Once they can engage in a conversation with the person, Benson said the focus turns to employing empathy.

“So as that person feels like they're being heard, and when that person feels like they're being heard, they're much more likely to, for lack of a better way of saying it, walk with you to the help that they need.” Benson said.

The training also includes following through after the initial encounter. Benson said the officers receive information on how to get people in touch with the right resources or medical care. However, it doesn’t end with the officers. Dispatchers also need training to know whether or not they’re directing officers to the scene of a mental health crisis.

Benson said it’s important to have training for every part of the law enforcement apparatus a person with a mental illness might interact with.

Overall, he said the impact isn’t only reduced stigma and increased confidence navigating the mental health system, it also gives officers an additional opportunity to take pride in their work.

“It's being able to see a police officer in a whole different role. And it's a very, very good connection for the community,” Benson said. “And it's a very good thing for an officer to feel like 'I've done something well.'”

In addition to his work with emergency responders, Benson also regularly speaks to groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Benson was the speaker for the tri-county chapter’s October meeting.

“When I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk to NAMI members, I do a lot more listening than I do actually talking,” he said. “Because they have family members they support, who’ve had to navigate this system.”

Benson pointed out, though it’s improved in his time in the field, stigma and poor design choices can make it very difficult for a person to get access to critically important mental healthcare.

“People have a right to treatment. And if people can't make a good decision for themselves, because of their illness that they're having, the mental health system needs to help them,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that the mental health system has to dictate what they do for the rest of their life.”

One of the examples he gives is access to medication. Patients may have to have multiple consultations before being eligible to meet with a “prescriber,” someone who can actually write them the medication. Benson said life circumstances can change drastically between those meetings.

Another example is scheduling. Benson said those seeking counseling may be assigned to a counselor and scheduled immediately without much input. If they have to miss one or two of the meetings, they may have to start from square one and find a new counselor again.

With these potential pitfalls in mind, Benson said CIT doesn’t only increase police officers’ ability to deal with a mental health crisis, it gives them context for how a person can end up in a crisis in the first place.

“This is how you engage your community. And this is how you ask questions with your social service agencies,” he said. “So as they can better partner together to be able to help these individuals that, for lack of a better way of saying it, continue to fall through the cracks.”

You can find more information about NAMI Tri-County and their upcoming speakers here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.