When Cop Calls Involve The Mentally Ill, Training Is Key

Increasingly, law enforcement has become the first line of contact for people with serious mental illness in crisis. Approximately 10 percent of police calls involve someone who is mentally ill, and how officers handle these calls can make the difference between life and death. Michael Woody, retired police officer and president of CIT International, talks with NPR's Arun Rath about what he has learned about how to best handle those situations.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

While mental illness wasn't a known factor in the events in Las Vegas, it has been at the foreground in a spate of recent shootings. Police officers around the country are dealing with this issue more and more. About 25 years ago, one young officer had an experience that forever changed the way he thought about mental illness.

MICHAEL WOODY: A 27-year-old young woman, single mother of a 7-year-old child, tried to take my life.

RATH: That's Michael Woody. At the time, he was a sergeant for the Akron, Ohio police department.

WOODY: She was charged with assault. I learned that she had had a mental illness for some time. I did not think that she would go to jail because she's ill. I figured she'd be found not guilty by reason of insanity. When she got the papers from the grand jury that she could do 7 to 25 years in prison, she ended up going to our high-level bridge that evening and took her own life.

RATH: Woody happened to be the closest officer to the bridge, so was the first to arrive on the scene.

WOODY: And I could see the body below, but they left their purse. I didn't know who it was. And I opened the purse, and the identification told me that it was this young woman. And I guess what bothers me more than anything is, boy, I hope her 7-year-old daughter - I hope somebody came along to take care of her. That's who my heart goes out to. And that's what's always bothering me. And that's where I realize that, boy, you know, we've got to change the way we deal with people that are sick, especially if it's a mental illness.

RATH: That became Woody's life work. He retired from the force and is now the president of CIT International, an organization that trains law enforcement to deal with mental illness in the field. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Team.

WOODY: Law enforcement seems to be our new go-to people, especially when a person with a mental illness is in crisis. It's usually in a home. Parents calling because their child has refused to take their medication. They don't think they need their medication. They start to escalate. And it just keeps amping up to where the parents sometimes actually feel a little bit of danger for their selves and for their loved one.

RATH: These types of calls are pretty common.

WOODY: Ten percent of their calls will involve somebody with a mental illness. Those can be very dangerous, very tricky. You really have to know what you're doing to handle them, what I would say, properly.

RATH: But many of the officers facing these situations don't have a lot of training to fall back on. In Woody's home state of Ohio, education on handling mental illness gets lumped in with 16 hours of disabilities training, which covers everything from learning how to deal with blindness and epilepsy, to schizophrenia. Woody says officers need much more specialized training to help them de-escalate situations involving the mentally ill.

WOODY: You know, our uniform is made to gain respect and, maybe, sometimes intimidate you. So when we show up on the scene, just our uniform actually ratchets them up. So we get the officers to take a calm attitude, a low tone of voice. We don't ratchet up our voice as this person starts ratcheting up. We also teach them to listen, even if it's nonsensical. This builds up that rapport, and it just naturally calms the person down.

RATH: He's encouraged by what he's heard from officers who have had the training.

WOODY: I get calls from all over the country, from officers that say, you know what? Lieutenant Woody, that training, it saved my life. It saved me injury. It saved me from having to take the life of somebody that was mentally ill that I - I know I'd have to live with the rest of my life. And it goes so much better that way.

RATH: Some departments already have a training program in place. But the extra training can stretch already thin budgets. Woody, though, is going to keep on pushing, hoping to prevent this generation of police from going through what he experienced as a young sergeant so many years ago.

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