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Calm in a Crisis
Specialized training helps police understand mental health
By Kate Morgan

Jarrod Broadway knew two things: the young man’s name, and that he was mentally ill.

Broadway, an officer with the Burlington Township Police Department, had been called to a local home by a father who said his schizophrenic son was wielding a big hunting knife. If the situation escalated any further, Broadway and his fellow officers knew they might be pressed to use deadly force.

Then, someone on the scene used the young man’s name, and Broadway saw his chance. The officer started to talk, calling him by name, building a connection and convincing him to put down the knife. The officers didn’t take him to the station. Instead, they brought him to a crisis center, where he was able to get back on his medication.

It was a dangerous situation that Broadway knew how to handle because of one thing: As the coordinator of Burlington County’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), he was trained to recognize signs of mental illness and given skills to diffuse situations that could otherwise take a turn for the worse. Now he’s teaching those skills to other officers.

While not a new idea, it’s one that’s gaining more notice amid the national protests and conversations about the role of law enforcement, mental health resources and funding.

A police department in Memphis, Tenn. is credited with creating the first CIT program in the late 1980s. In 2007, it made its way to South Jersey. Camden County piloted the first CIT training program in the state. Soon after, Broadway and his then-sergeant started their own class in Burlington County.

“The prevalence of mental illness, or at least the frequency of police dealing with those issues, seemed to be increasing, and we didn’t have a lot of answers,” Broadway says.

At the time, officers only knew of one option other than jail – a Screening and Crisis Intervention Program (SCIP) center in a local hospital. “All we knew was anybody that said anything having to do with mental illness, take ’em to SCIP,” he says.

Broadway helped instruct the first CIT class in Burlington County in 2011, and has since taken over the program entirely, partnering with Oaks Integrated Care, a mental health and social services non-profit, to teach fellow officers about local resources.

Close to 400 officers have been through CIT training in Burlington County. During the week-long, 40-hour program, they’re taught to recognize signs of mental illness and how to speak to a person in crisis. There are classes on substance abuse, suicide and de-escalation. Renee Carrillo, director of Justice Involved Services at Oaks, says the way the CIT-trained officers respond to people in the heat of the moment has completely changed.

“The message is: Instead of arresting this person, call us,” Carrillo says. “We can get them back on their meds, get them back home, see what we need to do.”

New Jersey’s law enforcement officers outnumber both social workers and mental health experts nearly 3 to 1, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Carrillo says the CIT program is designed to help bridge the gap, giving officers the resources to handle delicate situations.

“We’re not trying to turn them into psychiatrists or social workers,” Carrillo says. “You don’t have to be able to diagnose, just recognize when someone needs mental health help.”

Sometimes, that’s a goal that’s easier said than done. Broadway says a staggering number of calls to police departments involve someone with a mental health or substance abuse issue and responding without specialized training is often “like trying to be a marriage counselor without ever having seen or spoken to a married couple.”

The more skills and resources an officer can have at their disposal, Broadway adds, the better.

“Unfortunately, because of the nature of our work, you often find yourself at 2 am and you’re the only one available, so you’re the one who has to deal with it,” he says. “You’re the counselor, the psychologist, the minister, the paramedic, the plumber. We’re not here to turn officers into clinicians – we just want them to have a better understanding of the resources.”

Much of the CIT training focuses on diffusing a situation through communication, and that’s not a process that can be rushed. It’s a model of policing that can take some getting used to, especially for those with a more “old school” view of how law enforcement operates.

“Like in a lot of professions, the mindset of someone hired in 1985 is a lot different from someone hired in 2020,” Broadway says. In the past, “our job was to put the black gloves on and lock somebody up, and that’s how you solved every situation. So for a long time, many departments were reluctant to send their officers out for 40 hours to teach them how to ‘hug people’ and ‘coddle them.’”

But ultimately, Broadway says, CIT officers can be more effective, and it’s winning over skeptics, including those trained in a different era.

“We had a guy who already had 23 years in the police department when he came through CIT,” he says. “After that, he spoke at every class we held until he retired, saying he wished he’d had CIT at the beginning of his career. He could look back and see how many people he’d mistreated and how many situations were mishandled, because he and his fellow officers didn’t have the right training.”

It’s what Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina calls an “evolution of policing.” Coffina was sworn into office in early 2017, and he says even over his short tenure he’s seen a significant shift in the way officers in the county handle individuals struggling with addiction.

“We’ve got good chiefs who have embraced this idea,” says Coffina. “They have a job to do, they’re not overlooking crime. But maybe while that person is sitting there being processed, they can have a conversation about getting that person help.”

Although the CIT curriculum is designed to give officers tools to diffuse a situation without force, it’s taught with the understanding that sometimes, a conversation simply won’t solve the problem.

“The last big thing is when words fail,” Broadway says. “People come in thinking, ‘Ok, this is going to fix everything and they’re handing out a bag of magic beans.’ But there are times you can try to deescalate, reason, rationalize, but eventually you’re going to have to go hands-on. We teach them how to do it safely.”

And that, Coffina adds, is always the ultimate objective. “The goal,” he says, “is to have every encounter that police have with the community end safely.”

August 2020
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