Crisis Intervention Team Training teaches officers how to get those in crisis the help they need

Date: May 11, 2018

When our residents praise Ferguson Township as a safe place to live, work and do business, they’re recognizing the power of “community.”
The definition of “community policing” is working with the community to solve problems. 

“Helping people trying to find answers to their problems, or putting them in touch with someone who can help, is what we do every day,” said Ferguson Township Chief of Police Chris Albright. The department’s officers work in partnership with mental health and other community agencies to assist those in crisis.

An officer responding to a crisis situation needs to keep his or her “training, policy and leadership” top of mind to react appropriately,” said Albright. “That’s not to say we aren’t human and don’t feel upset, but talking to people and listening is the best way to help an agitated person calm down,” he added — a lesson that Albright learned as a hostage negotiator. “It is very draining but rewarding to talk someone through a crisis. We aim to get people the help they need before a situation escalates.”

Ferguson Township Police and other first responders in the Centre Region work in partnership with local mental health professionals through a program called Crisis Intervention Team Training (CIT). Ninety-eight percent of our officers have completed this 40-hour weeklong training, developed by the University of Memphis in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 

Now in its seventh year, with 15 trainings for 291 first responders under its belt, the CIT no longer relies on grants to fund it. The program is so effective that Centre County and local police departments committed to funding it each year.  

Responding appropriately to someone in emotional crisis

CIT helps first responders respond appropriately to any incident where someone is having a psychological or emotional crisis, is frustrated, acting out in an overt way, is suicidal or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The situations first responders often encounter involve someone who is not behaving as he or she normally would – domestic situations and family conflicts, such as children having issues with parents about boundaries. They also see students feeling the pressures of exams and relationship issues, people dealing with a traumatic death, and returning veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress. CIT devotes a half day of training just to veterans’ issues.

De-escalation techniques help the person regain control

During the training, first responders learn that, rather than rushing to bring a person in crisis under control, the best course of action is to show appropriate empathy and engage the person verbally. The sooner this person can get help, the better.

Tracy Small, who has served as the program’s coordinator since it was funded by a grant in March 2011, said the best step a first responder can take is to address the person by his or her first name. “The officer’s goal becomes developing a rapport with that person,” said Small, who has a background in psychology. As coordinator, Small’s job is to bring law enforcement together with mental health providers in a way that decriminalizes mental health. “Coming together works,” she said. Police who learn crisis de-escalation techniques very often go on to teach them to their fellow officers. 

“The training is interactive,” she added. “They hear people with mental health issues talk to them and role play real-life scenarios.”

As part of their training, responders visit places where individuals with mental health issues are being treated. Their visits give these individuals an opportunity to see officers out of uniform, and to suggest ways they can help reduce their anxiety – for example, explaining to them why they have to follow policy by handcuffing them, and giving them choices. Even though they are in crisis, they are capable of listening and responding when they are treated compassionately. These interactions with each other help people in crisis view police as less fearsome. 

Each first responder learns how to create a positive outcome

“CIT changes people at their core, in unexpected ways,” Small said. “Some of our participants have said, ‘I was dreading the CIT training because I was told I had to come, but this has been the best experience.’" Something positive has happened when one person feels he or she can make a difference.

CIT will host its 16th session in June. Ferguson Township Police Officer Skyler Ososkie will participate in that training.