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Crisis team helps local officers effectively address mental health issues

Hamilton Journal News - 11/2/2022

Nov. 2—Butler County law enforcement officers are working to be better prepared when they come across a person having a mental health crisis.

The Butler County Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, is will be entering its fifth year of operation in the upcoming new year.

Butler County CIT conducts two 40-hour training sessions with police officers across the county, and this week is the second of 2022.

NAMI Executive Director Rhonda Benson, who is the coordinator for Butler County CIT, said this training will allow police officers across the county to deal more effectively with citizens who are having a mental health crisis, as well as a substance abuse crisis, while in the field.

The training will also help accomplish the CIT's goal of collaboration within the community as they develop community partners.

"It's a shift in attitude," she said. "We want them to see these folks as human beings, not as somebody who is a problem for them in the community.

Keith Beall, Butler County CIT's law enforcement coordinator, said the training is "extremely important" as law enforcement officers need the training to handle stressful situations as it relates to people dealing with mental health disorders and mental health difficulties.

"It gives the officers additional resources that are available in the county, so they know what to do when they get on the scene," he said. "Who to contact, who to communicate with and how to alleviate the problem more quickly, more safely for the officers and for the people that they're assisting."

While the county has been doing crisis intervention training for the past few years, it's a program that's was developed in the 1980s in Memphis, Tenn.

The Butler County CIT is not unlike the quick response teams communities developed when addressing the heroin and opioid crisis, but it's a lot broader, said Benson. And the goal is to train people across the criminal justice system, from police officers to probation officers.

"It's kind of like trying to look at this thing across different perspectives," she said.

Butler County CIT has training for police officers, but they'll work on training for corrections officers and probation officers. The goal is to have training for everyone who interacts with people with mental health issues on every level, "including the mental health workers, even though they know what they're dealing with, they don't know what the police officers deal with," Butler said.

More and more communities across the country are developing training and teams similar to Butler County CIT, such as the Crisis Response Unit in Olympia, Wash., in 2019, Support Team Assistance Response program in Denver in 2020, and the Street Crisis Response Team in San Francisco in 2020, as reported by Vera, a national organization whose goal is to end mass incarceration.

Congress created 988, a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, that went live in July with a goal to make critical services more available to those who need it.

Beall said police departments need to improve their interactions with citizens with mental illness is education, which will provide them the tools to better handle a mental health crisis as it will give them a better respect for that segment of the population.

But there is also a stigma that remains when it comes to those with mental health disorders and illnesses, Beall said.

"It's not just related to police officers, but the community as a whole; there's still a large stigma when it comes to folks dealing with mental health," he said. "If you have diabetes or heart disease, it's well understood it's a medical problem. the same thing when it comes to the brain, it's an organ, so people need to understand the brain can also malfunction, just like the kidneys or the heart."

That means every situation is different, and when a police officer responded to a call, he said to assess and decide on the best course of action.

"Patience is always best," said the retired West Chester Twp. police officer. "It's always best to slow down and try to figure out what the main source of the problem is. There are so many factors that go into this when it comes to mental health, not only those who struggle with mental health but those potentially having financial problems, family problems, and all that comes into play, as well as substance abuse."

While an officer may need to arrest the person with a mental health crisis because a crime was committed, they need to be able to look at the resource options, especially when a crime has not been committed. Beall said can they help get that person into treatment, into the hospital or call the NAMI mobile crisis team?

"The biggest thing is for the officer to slow down and assess," he said.


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