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Maricopa County Crisis Intervention Training Aims To Keep Mentally Ill Safe, Out Of Jail

CIT Training
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
A volunteer acts out the part of a veteran in crisis who is pulled over by police during a Crisis Intervention Team training scenario in Tempe.

At a Tempe Police Department substation, a group of officers surrounded a man holding a baby doll and a knife.

“Drop the knife! You don’t want to do this,” one officer said. “You don’t want to hurt your baby.”

The man told them he needs to protect the child. The officers’ fake orange guns are drawn, but they don’t shoot.

“What is your name?” the officer asked. “I want to talk with you.”

The group is made up of law enforcement officers from departments around Maricopa County. They’re enrolled in a Crisis Intervention Team training held by Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care, the region’s behavioral health authority. On the last day of the training, behavioral health professionals act out real-life crisis scenarios like these and test how the officers respond.

“They engage the individual; they don’t shoot,” said Frank O’Halloran, crisis services liaison for Mercy Maricopa, who is teaching the session. “They did not enter into his delusions, but they acknowledged them.”

During the week-long voluntary training program officers are introduced to the resources available in the mental health system; they learn de-escalation techniques and get an introduction to behavioral health diagnoses.

“Just a very brief introduction to help try and maybe make some of the stuff they’re everyday make a little more sense to them,” said Joel Conger, crisis services director for Mercy Maricopa, who teaches the course with O’Halloran.

“The first responders are not only first responders to crime,” but they’re also the gateway to the mental health system,” O’Halloran said. “The two systems are connected.”

O’Halloran retired from the Scottsdale Police Department two years ago after 25 years on the job. He spent much of it as a negotiator on their SWAT Team. In the early days, he said they were called Hostage Negotiators. But, now, that name has changed to Crisis Negotiators.

“Because the reality is, of all the negotiations I performed, it was only one where I had a true hostage situation,” he said. “Everybody else was in a very deep crisis, suicidal crisis, and they were probably holding a gun to their head.”

Back then, when officers encountered a mentally ill person experiencing a crisis, their options were slim, O’Halloran said. Before, officers would take people in crisis to an emergency department that was unequipped to help them.

“But probably jail. They probably went to jail,” he said. “And we let the jail deal with it.”

In 2012, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported that more than a quarter of the state’s prison population had a mental health diagnosis.

“I remember the days when we just used to bring people to County Hospital; it would take us three or four hours. So, the only time you would do that was if you had a very extreme and acute person that didn’t commit any crime and there was nothing else that you could possibly do,” O’Halloran said. “Because we just didn’t have the time, nor the resources, or even the knowledge to do anything any different.”

This is still a pattern. But, O’Halloran said he’s seen CIT training put a dent in it. They’ve seen police drop-offs for mental health services steadily increase in the 14 years they’ve been training in crisis intervention. In recent years, the numbers have stayed steady at approximately 19,000 drop offs a year, O’Halloran said.

“What that tells us is that is a pre-jail diversion,” he said.

Mercy Maricopa is helping to expand crisis services this year, including CIT trainings.
“We want the students to understand how vast the crisis system is here in Maricopa County and how available the crisis services are,” Conger said.

When an officer encounters someone in crisis, they can call a mobile crisis team to come to the scene. They get them a respite bed at a recovery response center, or take them to an emergency psychiatric center.

Still, Conger and O’Halloran said officers often aren’t aware of what mental health resources are available. But, more departments are training officers about the available resources in the mental health system on the front end as part of their post-academy training, O’Halloran said. That, combined with CIT training, will continue to make a dent in the pattern.

“We actually provide resources for police officers to change that pattern of bringing somebody into jail,” O’Halloran said.

News The Show
Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.