Cook County Sheriff’s Officer Miriam Bernal starts each patrol shift knowing she may have to call upon her Crisis Intervention Team training while responding to calls in the far south suburbs. Bernal and her fellow officers have responded to nearly 500 mental health incidents in the past two years, according to a sheriff’s spokesperson.
The extensive 40-hour CIT course is considered by law enforcement experts to be the gold standard training on how to deal with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
“With CIT, they’ve taught us to get there, do active listening with the person in crisis and just hear them out,” Bernal said.
Millions of Americans suffer from mental illness. But sometimes their interactions with police officers can lead to injuries or death.
Last March, DeCynthia Clements led Elgin police on a chase on Interstate 90. She was eventually confronted by police officers, but refused to exit her car.
According to a lawsuit filed by her family, police knew Clements was experiencing a mental health crisis and was possibly suicidal. Police officers at the scene were planning to use non-lethal force to arrest Clements, who had a knife. But after her vehicle caught fire and she exited the vehicle and moved toward police, one of the officers shot and killed Clements.
Clements’ family told NBC 5 Investigates they feel it was a wrongful death and could have been handled differently.
“It’s also hard to see how they could just take a life so easily,” said her father, Charles Clements.
The Elgin Police Department has yet to comment on the lawsuit, but is asking for patience while the Cook County State’s Attorney investigates the incident.
Since 2003, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board has provided state-certified CIT training to police officers across the state. Participants receive intensive training on responding to people who have a mental illness or other behavioral disability. The one week block of instruction traditionally concludes with a role playing session in which police officers interact with actors portraying people experiencing an emotional breakdown.
“The actors and actresses give feedback in terms of how the officers made them feel. The way they stood. Were they too close? Were they on top of that person? Did they make them feel small or did they make them feel empowered?” said CIT program evaluator Heather Robinson.
CIT-certified officers also focus on de-escalating a mental health crisis situation and referring individuals to a mental health resource.
While some Chicago area police departments aim to provide CIT training to all of their police officers, other departments prefer a smaller, specialized unit.
Orland Park Police Chief Timothy J. McCarthy said he’s found that having 30 CIT-trained officers and two sergeants allows his department to handle 99% of the community’s mental crisis calls.
“This is the reality of law enforcement at this time and it’s our job to train for it and address it the best way we can,” McCarthy said.
Most Illinois police officers are required by law to complete 8 hours of mental health crisis training. However, experts say the week-long CIT course goes beyond basic academy curriculum and the 8 hour mental health awareness classes. Although, CIT training has been added to the curriculum at some academies.
NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Chicago surveyed more than 300 Chicago-area law enforcement agencies to find out which have CIT trained officers. Of the agencies that responded, most said they have at least one CIT trained officers. We found 31 local departments with no one extensively trained to deal with their mentally ill residents.
Several police departments with no CIT trained staff members said their officers have completed multiple mental health awareness training courses that deal with behavioral threat assessments, addiction, mental first aid, developmental disabilities and treatment resources. Police chiefs also said the CIT courses fill up fast and it can be costly in time to have police officers attend a week-long training course.
To find out if your local police department has CIT-certified officers to better handle residents experiencing a mental health crisis, explore the maps below: