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A recent number of high profile police shootings - including that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last month - have led to increased scrutiny of police interactions with civilians. People with mental illness are disproportionally subject to the use of force by police. Across the country, local departments hold special sessions to train officers about mental illness and how to help the people they interact with. Durrie Bouscaren, of St. Louis Public Radio, reports.
DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Walking up and down the aisle of a police academy classroom in downtown St. Louis, Lieutenant Perri Johnson tells the officers here that responding to calls when a person is a mental distress is never easy.
LIEUTENANT PERRI JOHNSON: You're going to get plenty of opportunity to utilize some things that you're learning. You're going to get thrown in a situation...
BOUSCAREN: This lecture on tactical communications is part of a weeklong crisis intervention training - or CIT. Officers are taught to recognize different types of mental illness and how to de-escalate situations where someone feels threatened or may react violently.
JOHNSON: You know, you'll see bipolar disorder, schizophrenia - various versions of that. What we see a lot of is people, who haven't been diagnosed, and they may be taking drugs, they may be drinking to mask those issues.
BOUSCAREN: These officers respond when people are experiencing some of their darkest moments. On rare occasions calls end with injuries to the person in distress, or the officer, or both. Lieutenant Johnson says he tells his students that most of all they need to use compassion.
JOHNSON: Lower your voice so that that person becomes comfortable, but at the same time you're keeping an eye of their movement - on their hands. Know where the doors are in case you need to get out quickly.
BOUSCAREN: In the late 1980s police in Memphis, Tennessee, shot and killed a man threatening suicide with a knife. It was outcry over the incident that led to developing the crisis intervention team model, which has now been expanded to almost 3,000 local departments and regional councils. Local providers for mental health services - including the National Alliance on Mental Illness - work closely with departments to develop the curriculum. Richard Stevenson is with that group. He says it's important that officers know where they can take a person to get help. Almost 90 percent of St. Louis CIT calls end with the person being taken to the emergency room or another treatment facility.
RICHARD STEVENSON: Because it is helpful, because it is successful, no one hears anything about it. There's not much great news value to an officer who does an effective job at calming a situation down and getting help for the person who is in distress.
BOUSCAREN: Linda Teplin teaches psychiatry at Northwestern University. She says increasingly police are taking on the role of street psychiatrists as a decline in funding for mental health programs leaves people with mental illness with fewer resources.
LINDA TEPLIN: So the issue is what is happening to these people? Who in past years would have been treated in the mental health system and now are not receiving treatment and are in the street.
BOUSCAREN: Teplin says this means people with mental illness now have more contact with law enforcement, are more likely to be arrested and, in very rare cases, hurt during police encounters. An analysis of St. Louis area CIT reports shows that on average officers used force in about 4 percent of cases, most often with a Taser or constraint. Last month a St. Louis CIT-trained officer shot and killed a 25-year-old Kajieme Powell who was rushing towards officers while carrying a knife, imploring them to shoot him. St. Louis CIT coordinator Sergeant Jeremy Romo says his teams take these cases seriously. He says when officers are responding to someone who may pose a threat to themselves or others they're trained not to further escalate the situation.
SERGEANT JEREMY ROMO: But in some situations the situation is evolved and gone so far downhill that the officer's safety or citizen safety takes a priority.
BOUSCAREN: Sergeant Romo says when force is used there's something else that comes to mind...
ROMO: I want to know how many times that individual was in the hands of the mental health system and the mental health system failed to provide them with adequate assistance.
BOUSCAREN: Romo says demand for CIT training classing has increased, but he notes the greatest need appears to be not in cities but in rural areas where emergency mental health services are often scarce or nonexistent. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in St. Louis.
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