Nearly 30 years ago, the city pioneered in sending specially trained police officers to mental health emergencies. Research has yet to prove how well the program stops injuries and saves lives.
A 1987 police shooting of a mentally ill man led to the creation of the Memphis Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team. Specially trained police officers respond to mental health emergencies and use empathy, listening skills and related techniques to calm down people. In many cases, they take people to a psychiatric emergency center rather than to jail, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Today, the concept has spread to thousands of other police agencies throughout the U.S. and the world. Memphis experts recently traveled to China, said Michael Woody of CIT International, an umbrella group guiding the programs. Yet as the 30th anniversary of the 1987 shooting approaches this September, it’s difficult to prove definitively how well the program stops injuries and saves lives.
The question of effectiveness matters. The Washington Post reports that 25 percent of people killed by police had a mental illness. In some parts of the U.S., people are debating whether all police officers in a department should go through the CIT training, or just a specialized few. In Memphis there are now about 285 CIT officers, 15 percent of sworn officers. Officers volunteer for the 40-hour training program. A survey found 45 percent said they have a family member or a loved one with a mental illness. Most CIT calls don’t result in an arrest. Last year, just 3 percent of 18,000 calls led to a person being taken to jail. The number of CIT calls has increased as people learn about the program and gain confidence in the police. It’s difficult to use statistics to prove the effectiveness of CIT in the real world. “We’re a best practice, but we aren’t evidence-based yet,” said Woody. “And that’s what we’re working on as an organization, to be evidence-based. And boy, that takes time and usually a lot of money.”