CSPD hosts law enforcement training for mental health 911 calls

First seen in the Colorado Springs Indy

“We have to show that we care about people. A lot of people don’t think that we do,” a facilitator told a Colorado Springs Police officer during Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training Sept. 24.

The student — one of 27 El Paso County and Colorado Springs law enforcement personnel to participate in this fall’s CIT training class — received the feedback during a training scenario where an actor played an alcoholic veteran involved in a domestic violence 911 incident.

Trainers reminded the officer to use open-ended questions and “I” statements to build rapport. The officer should introduce herself by her first name, they said. These are a just two crisis tactics relayed to officers during the 40-hour course.

The CIT training, based on a national model, is part of ongoing efforts within Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) to improve their responses to contacts who have mental health issues. EPSO has two co-responder units that pair a deputy with a UCHealth behavioral health clinician, and CSPD has four units with a CIT-trained officer, a paramedic and a behavioral-health clinician from AspenPointe.

But both co-responder programs can handle only a fraction of mental health-related calls in the county. The EPSO co-responder program deals with about a 100 of 400 mental health classified calls a month out of 20,000 total calls. Patrol officers still answer the majority of these calls without support from a mental health professional.

As protests against racism and excessive force by law enforcement sweep the country, some groups have demanded police be replaced with social services. Some have argued law enforcement officers shouldn’t be sent to respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis, but the reality is that officers do respond to most of those emergencies. A 2019 survey from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit focused on public mental health, estimated officers nationwide spend 21 percent of their overall time responding to mental health-related calls where they transfer people to treatment at a hospital or jail.

The CIT training aims to better equip local law enforcement with nontraditional police skills so officers can divert those with mental health and addiction issues from jail to longer-term and more effective treatment options, thereby reducing use-of-force incidents and incarceration.

But it is not just training. The program was founded in 1988 in Memphis as a way to connect law enforcement with hospitals, mental health providers and those impacted by mental illness. Nearly 3,000 communities across the country use CIT training, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

CIT can curtail the number of arrests of those with mental illness, reduce the frequency of injured officers and can cut the time needed to complete calls, according to NAMI. But it does not ensure a reduction in use of force by officers — lethal or otherwise.

A 2019 study in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that CIT training can lead to earlier mental health treatment and diversion from jail, but it doesn’t decrease deadly encounters between law enforcement and those with mental health and substance use disorders.

More than 50 percent of CSPD officers on patrol are CIT-trained, and EPSO has 137 CIT-trained deputies out of 517. The two agencies have partnered the past two years to offer the training three times a year for a cost of around $15,000 per class. The next training will be in December.

For those struggling with mental health, encounters with law enforcement can be deadly. The Treatment Advocacy Center reported in 2015 that a person with an untreated severe mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other people, and people with severe and untreated mental illness represent nearly half of all fatal police shootings nationwide.

Society has designated cops jacks of all trades. IF THEY CAN’T HANDLE THEMSELVES, THEY CALL THE COPS.

— SGT. Eric Frederic, CSPD Wellness Sergeant and Crisis Intervention Team Training Coordinator 

Washington Post analysis of police shootings found that 20 percent of people shot nationwide by police this year struggled with mental illness — 10 percent in Colorado.

“Society has designated cops jack[s] of all trades. If they can’t handle themselves, they call the cops. And a lot of the calls for service like this end up being mental health-component related,” says Sgt. Eric Frederic, who runs the Colorado Springs Police Department’s CIT training. 

“We’re not therapists,” he says, adding there is a “huge discrepancy” in the education of a mental health professional and a police officer. Officer training focuses on constitutional law and tactical skills like use of force, while mental health professionals receive thousands of hours of training in counseling and therapeutic skills.

Frederic says that law enforcement attitudes have shifted since he worked as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department in the ’90s. They’ve moved from a “style of kick ass, take names” to a more people-focused approach that emphasizes long-term solutions rather than “Band-Aids.” The CIT training helps officers make that shift in the way they respond to calls.

“It is a mental shift or paradigm shift for these officers to say, ‘Hey, we need to treat people as people, not as problems to be solved,’” Frederic says. It’s not “hug a thug,” slang for weak policing, but “hug a person,” he clarifies.

“It takes more effort for sure because cops aren’t touchy-feely,” Frederic says, adding the course helps officers communicate on a more personal level.

Carey Boelter, a licensed counselor who runs EPSO’s co-responder program, says the training provides officers the skills to find the root of a person’s behavioral issues and not just investigate possible criminal behavior.

“There is a difference between somebody who’s acting out because of an untreated mental illness and somebody who’s acting out to purposely cause harm,” she says. 

Four professional actors pushed officers to understand those differences during the training in September. “Their job is to make [the trainees] as uncomfortable as possible,” says Joe Wilson, the owner of Twopenny Productions, which specializes in law enforcement training. Wilson partners with agencies across the Front Range to provide actors to work with SWAT, dispatchers, CIT trainees and hostage negotiators.

The actors respond negatively to an officer standing too close or acting too authoritatively. “We’re trying to humanize them in the eyes of the officers and give the officers the verbal tools and the experience to deal with this fragile, vulnerable population in a way that hopefully doesn’t involve handcuffs and a trip to jail,” Wilson says. 

He has seen officers reluctantly begin training and, by the end, say it’s changed their careers. “He or she learned that they could accomplish so much more with a kind word than they could with a Taser,” Wilson says.

Kelsey Willis, a third-year patrol officer with CSPD who has taken part in CIT training, says it teaches officers to slow down and embrace using personal experience to relate to a contact. Willis says that she has used her own experience with depression and anxiety and her diagnosis as a Type 1 diabetic to relate to people in crisis.

During her six months at the police academy, Willis was pepper-sprayed and tasered, and underwent firearm and driving training, but she doesn’t think those are the most important skills for an officer to have.

“I think our voice and what we say to people is the most important part of our jobs. I believe it can leave a resounding message within the community,” she says. A poor interaction can keep a family or person from ever calling law enforcement again.

CSPD’s CIT-trained officers respond to about 25 percent of the department’s total suicide calls and 10 percent of its calls for welfare checks, but Frederic says there are no data tracking the broader outcomes of CIT training for CSPD officers due to a lack of resources — which also prevents the entire force from receiving CIT training.

EPSO says that CIT-trained deputies respond to nearly 60 percent of the office’s mental health calls, though Boelter says EPSO classifies calls differently than CSPD so it is not accurate to compare the two agencies.

CIT training is not the only solution to address mental illness and police violence, Frederic says. He thinks there needs to be more service options for the mentally ill and less stigma surrounding mental illness. He says officers addressing their own mental health needs to continue to be normalized.

But community relationships will improve through training like CIT, he says, as officers learn to deal with people more holistically, while collaboratively solving issues.

“In my eyes, this is the shining issue right now,” Frederic says, “because if we do treat people as people and the citizens see that, the protesters see that, it builds a lot of credibility.”