“No one should be a police officer who lacks empathy or good communication skills,” Expert Says

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(7-20-20) I’m encouraging discussion about calls to shift responsibility for Americans with serious mental illnesses away from law enforcement back to social services and the medical community. Dr. Mark Munetz, Professor and Chair Emeritus of Psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University, is co-author of the Sequential Intercept Model that is widely used by law enforcement and communities to identify key intersections when someone with a mental illness can be “intercepted” and receive treatment, especially after they enter the criminal justice system. I greatly admire Dr. Munetz who today offers his views on policing and mental illnesses. 

I’m Not Enthusiastic About Defunding The Police

Guest Blog By Mark Munetz

Funding for treatment and support of individuals with mental illness in America is woefully inadequate.  I spent my career as a psychiatrist advocating to change this.  So one might think I would be enthusiastic about the current call to defund the police and use some of the savings to increase mental health funding so that mental health professionals can respond to mental health crises rather than police.

But that is not the case.

Serious mental disorders affect approximately one out of 20 adults.  At best, half receive treatment.  Without treatment these conditions can be disabling and result in startling rates of premature death.  We know that treatment works but our systems are inadequate to engage many with the greatest needs.  All too many end up in jail or prison.  Today there are ten times as many people with serious mental illness in our nation’s jails and prisons than in psychiatric hospitals.

I have spent much of the past two decades working to address this complex problem.  While increased mental health funding is necessary to address the over-representation of people with mental illness in the justice system, it alone is not sufficient.  We also must address larger societal problems like poverty, homelessness and systemic racism. There cannot be a zero-sum game of funding for the police and human services.  We need to increase our overall funding for human services including what I call re-invented police work.

There is a model of such policing.

Over the last twenty years I have collaborated with hundreds of caring police officers working in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs.

CIT was started in Memphis, TN in the late 1980s after a young black man with schizophrenia was shot and killed in an encounter with the Memphis police.  CIT programs reflect a partnership between law enforcement, the mental health community, individuals living with mental illness and their families.  The community shares ownership of the program and the police and mental health community are accountable to one another.  CIT officers want the mental health system to improve and many become advocates for change.  As CIT programs mature it is increasingly common for communities to develop co-responder programs where police and mental health professionals ride together.  Communities with mobile crisis teams work collaboratively with the police to sort out when clinicians need police assistance or when only a police response is safe.  911 operators and suicide hotlines may work together.

The CIT model is based on the premise that not every police officer is well suited to effectively interact with individuals with mental illness.  Many lack the needed empathy and verbal communication skills.   So, to become the special officer who wears the CIT pin, volunteers are carefully selected to get additional training.  They become the first responders whenever a call is identified as involving mental illness.  In a large department anywhere from a fifth to half of officers are selected for the program.  Most do amazing work, carrying out their usual police work while safely and respectfully responding to individuals in the midst of a suicidal crisis or an acute psychotic episode.

Dr. Mark Munetz

Police chiefs around the country learned about CIT and many attributed the great results to the week of training the officers received.   But the training only sticks when the right officers are selected for the program.  So proponents of the “Memphis Model” emphasize the need for volunteer officers and resist the idea that all police officers should be CIT trained.

However, most police departments are too small for the volunteer model to work.  To have CIT officers available 24/7 all officers need to be CIT officers.  Smart police chiefs, embracing the CIT model, only hire individuals who have the empathy and communication skills needed to be good CIT officers.  These chiefs get it:  good CIT officers are good officers.

These officers see their job as primarily being guardians to the community, reserving the warrior role to selected situations with the rare bad actors.  They embrace police work as social work, at least in part.  Years ago, I had a conversation with one of the first members of my community’s CIT team.   I mentioned how much I valued his partnership with the mental health system.  He got a bit indignant and said, “I don’t think of myself as a partner to the mental health system.  I think I am part of the mental health system”.

How do we reinvent police work?

Public safety should be viewed as part of public health.  Police work is both protecting and serving.  Police officers are underpaid for the job we ask them to do.  It is incredibly difficult work.  If they are to be held to professional standards they should be compensated accordingly.  And no one should be a police officer who lacks empathy or good communication skills.


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.