Sadly, no CIT Officer of the Year in Fairfax

I returned from speaking at the International Crisis Intervention Team conference in San Antonio, Texas, with mixed feelings. The conference was great and I was especially pleased to bump into Robert Cluck from my local NAMI chapter in Northern Virginia, as well as Major Tom Ryan from the Fairfax Police Department, who has been one of our county’s strongest CIT advocates. They were among the 1,300 attendees making the conference the largest to date. 
The focus of CIT has expanded from when it was first introduced.  Initially, it was seen as a training program for the police that taught officers how to respond when they encountered someone with a mental illness who was in the midst of a crisis. Now the emphasis is on using CIT to bring different community leaders together to improve mental health services.
Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to spark interest in CIT and even then, there’s generally much grumbling by police officers about having to sit through some “hug a thug” training program.
But then something magical happens.
The officers turn from skeptics into mental health advocates. It’s at this point where CIT either starts to help transform a local mental health system through team work or it begins to wither away.
In communities where CIT flourishes, newly trained officers become a catalyst. They begin questioning why ill persons are booked into jails or taken to hospital emergency rooms only to be released a few hours later without getting treatment. They begin pushing for the creation of “crisis drop off centers” where psychiatrists can evaluate persons and get them into community treatment programs. CIT officers become advocates for jail diversion programs too and for mental health courts and for jail re-entry programs. And, most of all, they begin calling for improved community mental health services. They reach out to mental health care providers, judges, housing officials, hospitals, and groups such as NAMI and Mental Health America. The officers understand that for CIT to be successful, a community has to have adequate treatment services.
That is what can happen when all of the right players sit at the table and the emphasis is on teamwork.
But if CIT is launched without support from NAMI, MHA, mental health providers, judges, housing officials and others, then officers become frustrated and get burned out because they see people who need help simply being caught in the same mental health system that doesn’t work. The ill go from the streets, to jail, or into a hospital for a brief period, and then back to the streets. 
Which brings me to my mixed feelings.
This afternoon, I will be traveling to the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts, to speak about the importance of CIT. I’ve been invited by Henrico County CIT officials. They are active members of a Virginia CIT association that has been doing a fantastic job promoting CIT in Virginia.
During my drive to Richmond, I will be wondering where the enthusiasm for CIT is in my own back yard.
Patti and I decided three years ago that we would donate $500 a year to the Northern Virginia Chapter of NAMI to give as an award to the CIT Officer of the Year in Fairfax. We hoped this award would honor local CIT officers who exemplified the best in helping persons with mental disorders, such as my son.
The first award went to Major Michael Kline, a great guy who has been a strong CIT advocate. The next year, Captain Brian Berke of Arlington, another outstanding CIT officer, was selected. 
Who will get the $500 award this year?
No one.
After much soul-searching, Patti and I decided not to donate money this year. This is because Fairfax County has dropped the ball when it comes to CIT. It has not offered a CIT training class for more than a year despite an obvious need.
Fairfax Detective Vicky Armel and Officer Michael Garbarino were murdered by an untreated young man with a mental disorder in 2006. More recently, David Masters, a 52 year-old man, with mental illness was shot to death by a Fairfax Police Officer while stopped at a traffic light. The unarmed Masters was being pursued because he had taken flowers from outside a business. A few months later, Ian Smith, a 25 year-old man with a mental illness was critically wounded after his parents called the Fairfax County Police for help.
I’ve been told that Fairfax County Police Chief David M. Rohrer supports CIT and I know he cared enough about our first CIT award to personally attend the NAMI banquet where it was given.  I’ve also been assured that a new CIT class in Fairfax will be taught in the fall of 2010.
I sure hope so.  I also hope NAMI and mental health providers and the Fairfax criminal justice system will be joining the police in developing improved ways to help persons who are sick. 
I’d like nothing better than to have a long list of candidates when it comes time to select an Officer of the Year in 2011.
Fairfax County is not the only Washington D.C. area that is having problems when it comes to persons with mental illness being fatally shot by police officers.  There have been two deaths in Arlington caused by Tasers and NAMI-Arlington and the Arlington Community Service Board [Virginia’s mental health services provider] are meeting with police officials Tuesday [June 8th] to express concern. The first death occurred at the Pentagon City Metro in January, the other in April when police answered an “emergency psychiatric call” and were confronted by a naked man who refused to obey orders. 
Both cases are under investigation, according to NAMI Member Tom  Quinn who is going to propose that the police adopt NAMI’s national guidelines when it comes to Tasers.  Here is a copy. If your police are using Tasers, you might want to make them aware of NAMI’s guidelines. 

8.9 Application of Less Lethal Weapons by Law Enforcement Officers

(8.9.1)    The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) believes that the use of conducted energy devices (including stun guns, tasers, impact delivery systems, or any other similar non-firearm weapons)used by law enforcement officers responding to individuals with serious mental illness should be permitted only if the responding officer concludes that an immediate threat of death or serious injury exists, which cannot be contained by lesser means, and/or is likely to be hazardous to the officer(s), the individual, or a third party.  Such devices should not be deployed when other means or methods of de-escalations are appropriate, available, and suitable for the crisis event, nor   should these devices ever be used as a means of intimidation or inappropriate coercion. 
(8.9.2)       NAMI further believes that states should include, in statute, a requirement for the development and enforcement of standards and minimum training requirements for all law enforcement, corrections and other personnel who use or may potentially use these devices in the performance of their duties.  This mandatory training must include information about effective methods of responding to people with mental illness in crisis with verbal and non-verbal crisis de-escalation techniques. 
(8.9.3)     States should also strictly define in statute categories of professionals who are authorized to use these devices in the performance of their duties and should strictly prohibit usage of these devices by those not identified as authorized users in statute.  
(8.9.4)       NAMI calls upon the states and the federal government to fund and promote research that documents the incidence of use of these devices and investigates both the short term and long term physical and psychological impact on people who have experienced the application of such devices.  This research also should determine the potential dangers associated with risk factors, including but not limited to age and pre-existing medical conditions. 
(8.9.5)      Each use of these devices should be investigated by the respective law enforcement agency or institution in the same way that use of a firearm would be investigated by a law enforcement agency.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.