Officers Train in Teams to Respond to the Mentally Ill

Twenty-five percent of the people in Virginia jails have some kind of mental illness. Organizations around the state are trying to bridge the gap between law enforcement and mental health.

More than 3,000 Virginia law enforcement officers, first responders and mental health professionals are part of Crisis Intervention Teams, set up to better handle cases involving mentally ill offenders. Many of the teams gathered at a statewide conference in Charlottesville Monday.

The CIT program, started in 1988 in Memphis, has grown out of a combination of factors. More people are being diagnosed with mental illnesses, and there is a greater understanding of how these cases need to be handled.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said, when officers approach mentally ill offenders in traditional ways, there can be negative consequences.

"It can become dangerous where it doesn't have to be," said Cuccinelli. That's where the CIT training comes into play. "So there's safety for officers, there's safety for these mentally ill folks and there's also the focus on how to steer them in a direction that's going to help them help themselves get better."

Henrico County police officer Dustin Eddington has been trained in CIT for about four years. He was recently able to use the techniques he has learned to deal with an elderly woman who was repeatedly incarcerated.

"We were able to ascertain that she was on the wrong medication, and her outbursts were not all entirely of her own doing," said Eddington.

He said it that success story was a combined effort. CIT allows first responders and people in the mental health field to remove communication barriers and work as a team.

"Now when we all arrive on scene, whether we're the first one on the scene or the last one on the scene, everybody knows everybody or they're familiar with everybody," Eddington said. "Those communication lines are now open and freely working together to help the person we are all there to help, who is our citizen who is currently in crisis."

Seventy percent of Virginia has law enforcement trained on crisis intervention. Earlier this month, a settlement was made for $1.5 billion in a pharmaceutical case against Abbot Laboratories. Cuccinelli said some of that money will be used to expand CIT training to the remaining 30 percent of the state.

There is a growing need for the training, according to Deane Waite, a police officer for the City of Richmond and a CIT instructor.

"More people are being diagnosed with mental illnesses daily," said Waite. "And mental ill hospitals are shutting down more and more across the United States, state by state, so [mentally ill people] are back out there in the public."

The goal of the program is to help keep the criminal justice system for criminals and get the mentally ill the resources they need.

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