Training Police Officers to Safely Respond to Psychiatric Emergencies
In the early 1970s, two former state hospital patients died by suicide in the county prison because there was no place to take them. Some place was needed to provide evaluation and treatment to avoid criminal justice system involvement for behavior related to serious mental illness. Montgomery County Emergency Service was started to be that place, but first police officers had to be able to recognize signs of possible mental illness and be able to help in a way that was safe for the person in crisis and for them.
The solution was the Crisis Intervention Specialist (CIS) Program, which has the goal of assuring that every trainee can recognize and appropriately deal with any emergency mental health situation. CIS training covers Pennsylvania mental health law (civil, criminal and competency to stand trial), the types and nature of psychiatric disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and other behavioral health concerns such as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, and substance use disorders. Suicide prevention, medications, and terminology are also covered.
CIS builds crisis intervention skills and familiarity with signs of mental illness. It increases empathy for mentally ill individuals, lessens the probability of injury and decrease the probability of criminal justice system involvement. CIS-trainees can provide crisis stabilization, assessment, conflict resolution and referral to community services.
Experienced and highly qualified instructors give CIS training with contributions by National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) volunteers who share their experiences in mental illness crisis encounters with police. Role-play, virtual reality demonstrations, and simulations are used extensively.
Municipal police officers in Montgomery County, PA, account for the majority of CIS trainees. Currently, several township police departments have had their entire staff CIS-trained. CIS training is also open to other law enforcement and public safety professionals including state and county probation, parole, and correctional officers as well as officers from special police agencies such as AMTRAK and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) transit police department as well as college and university police departments. Personnel from the Montgomery County Court and the District Attorney’s Office have also participated in CIS training.
The Municipal Police Education and Training Commission (MPOETC) approves CIS for Continuing Law Enforcement Education (CLEE) credit for Pennsylvania police officers. CIS is also recognized for Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Continuing Education through the PA Department of Health.
CIS was among the first mental health education programs for law enforcement personnel and is the longest continuously operating program. It has influenced the nature of policing in Montgomery County by giving officers the skills, knowledge, and, most importantly, understanding of how mental illness affects the behavior of individuals so that “mental health calls” lead to treatment and ongoing help.