Mental health advocates demand expansion of crisis intervention training

(The Gate/Sonya Eldridge)

(The Gate/Sonya Eldridge)

A group of mental health advocates are urging the Chicago Police Department to expand its specialized sensitivity training geared to police officers who interact regularly with people living with mental illness.

Members of the Mental Health Justice Team from ONE Northside, a group that organizes residents in neighborhoods like Ravenswood, Uptown and Lakeview hand-delivered a letter to a CPD representative during a demonstration Tuesday outside police headquarters on 35th Street and Michigan Avenue.

They demanded that CPD increase the number of officers trained in Crisis Intervention Training, a voluntary, 40-hour program that teaches police officers the signs and symptoms of mental illness,. The group also asked that Chicago Police Bureau of Patrol Chief Wayne Gulliford report the number of officers trained to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on a quarterly basis.

As a result of budget cuts that led to the closure of half of the city’s community-based mental health clinics in 2012, many individuals have struggled to find the services they need before a crisis occurs, said Pastor Fred Kinsey of Unity Lutheran Church in the Edgewater community.

The group said the department needs to expand the program from training 200 police officers annually to 400.

“Most police officers on the beat have come to accept that due to our own failure to provide preventative medical care and efficient follow-up, they have become the first responders for those who are in crisis.  That’s why officers are literally waiting in line for CIT.  They’re willing to do their part,” Kinsey said.

Elizabeth Rahuba is a role player in the CIT program who participates in training scenarios with CPD officers.  According to Rahuba, about 3,000 officers from CPD and Chicago’s major universities have received Crisis Intervention Training, but that number is not enough to address the number of calls for service logged for mental health crises.

“Each year in Chicago alone, there are approximately 22,000 mental health crisis calls,” Rahuba said.  “That averages out to 60-65 mental health crisis calls per day, which we know cannot be covered by current staffing levels.”

Becky Brasfield of Englewood knows firsthand the importance of increasing CIT in CPD.  In 2010, Brasfield threatened to kill a woman after suffering from a delusion.  She was arrested by officers who were not trained in CIT and spent five months behind bars, including some time in Cook County Jail, recently referred to as the county’s largest mental health facility by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in a Chicago Tribune op-ed.

Brasfield attempted suicide after her release. She was later able to find the proper treatment at a psychiatric facility.

There she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a condition in which a person experiences a combination of schizophrenia symptoms — such as hallucinations or delusions — and mood disorder symptoms, such as mania or depression.”

Today, Brasfield is symptom-free, but cannot find a job due to her criminal record.  Brasfield said she had a bright future ahead of her after earning a Master’s degree in sociology from the University of Illinois.  Now, she must rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

“The cost of criminalizing psychiatric illness is too great,” Brasfield said.  “But the police cannot do better, unless they know better, and that is why we need more CIT-trained officers.”

Diana Tifase is a recovery specialist at Trilogy Behavioral Healthcare, a nonprofit healthcare organization in Rogers Park.  Tifase said when situations with clients escalate; she has called the police specifically requesting officers trained in CIT.  She said usually, untrained officers are dispatched to the clinic.

“If you’re calling from a mental health facility, they should automatically be like, ‘OK we are sending out a CIT team,’” Tifase said.

She spoke of one specific situation where police were called for support, but instead, she said the client and staff were treated with “utter disrespect.”

Tifase said she notified her local police district about the assigned officers’ response to the ordeal.  She also said that it seems quite common for police to mistake mental health episodes for regular criminal behavior.

“Most [clients] have acute symptoms… so they act out,” Tifase said.  “And the way they act out is similar to those who are irrational, who are dangerous, who are about to commit a crime.  That’s why the more police officers that are trained, whoever comes out can assess-that’s the key word.  First of all, de-escalate the situation, assess the person, and then treat them with respect and dignity and take them to the appropriate place- for treatment or supports.”

CPD’s Crisis Intervention Training pilot testing began in 2005 following recommendations set forth by then CPD Supt. Phil Cline’s Mental Health Task Force.  The program has gradually expanded since that time.

CPD was not immediately available for comment.