News & Events

Improving Police Interactions with People with Mental Illnesses

Public Health in the National News
by Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Steve Ryan, and Kate Watkins


Persons with severe mental illness or developmental disorders have long faced incarceration in jails or prisons as the alternative to hospitalization. Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 64% of jail inmates in the United States have mental health problems. The absolute numbers of persons with severe mental illness are greater in American jails and prisons than in our hospitals, making jails the largest de facto institutions for the mentally ill. A Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is one law enforcement response model used to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system. CIT began in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1980s in response to an incident in which an armed man with a history of mental illness was killed by a police officer. CIT is based on partnership between law enforcement and mental health care providers. In the CIT model, sworn law enforcement officers receive special training and are active liaisons to the formal mental health system. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has played a significant role in promoting the CIT model. Typically, the CIT training program consists of 40 hours of activities, including presentations by mental health and law enforcement professionals, panel discussions with community members who have mental illness and their family members, site visits of mental health care facilities, experiential learning about hallucination, interactive training for crisis de-escalation, and scenario-based training to respond to crisis situations. One of the more recent movements is expansion of the CIT program to include training of officers to address the specific needs of youth. CIT for Youth brings together schools, law enforcement, mental health providers, and advocates to address the needs of children and youth and to prevent their involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The Heartland CIT program began in March 2006 to train law enforcement personnel in Douglas County and surrounding communities. Over 300 officers from more than 20 agencies in the southeastern counties in Nebraska have been trained through this program. Recently, the program added a youth CIT training. Dr. Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway has been evaluating the program since its inception.

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