By Dave Baker
It wouldn’t be far reaching to say that Connecticut prisons have become de-facto housing for those suffering from mental illnesses. The facts speak for themselves: 16 percent of all individuals held in Connecticut prisons suffer from mental illness, with only one in five receiving treatment for their conditions. Connecticut’s 2010 annual recidivism report determined that inmates with mental health problems presented significantly higher rates of recidivism, ultimately resulting in higher costs of inmate healthcare and a further strain on an already struggling state economy.
In response, a number of measures have been taken within the criminal justice system to identify and properly handle suspects and inmates affected by mental illness; a process that begins first with law enforcement.
Louise Pyers is the founder and Executive Director of CABLE [Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement]. A clinician with over 30 years of experience, she specializes in counseling law enforcement and other emergency response personnel. Pyers also serves as statewide CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] program coordinator and is certified to offer training in stress management and suicide intervention.
Brought to Connecticut in 2000, CIT training was first offered to police departments in 1988 using a model developed by a joint effort between the Memphis Police Department and the University of Memphis. The program was developed in response to the community’s outrage following the shooting of an armed suspect by Memphis police officers. It was learned that the suspect was in fact mentally ill, raising awareness for a need in improved tactics in dealing with mentally ill suspects, pushing treatment over incarceration. Captain Kenneth Edwards of the New London, CT Police Department went to Memphis and received CIT training, establishing New London as the first department in Connecticut and the second in the region to deploy the CIT program.
Collaborating with Capt. Edwards and CABLE, Pyers expanded the CIT program throughout the state with aid from the State Mental Health Authority and non-profit funding. Since 2003, 72 state and federal law enforcement agencies in Connecticut have sent officers to receive CIT training, roughly 1500 officers statewide. “We added 12 new departments in 2011 alone,” Pyers said. Teaching officers to recognize the behavioral cues of a mentally ill person and how to deescalate a given situation, the Connecticut model of CIT takes a systemic approach, working closely with mental health providers in the state. Trained officers will notify mental health agencies following an arrest to determine whether or not the recently charged individual is already documented in the system and if they should be turned over to a mental health agency, potentially qualifying for mental health jail diversion.
Officers participate on a largely volunteer basis, with some selected by their department for training in CIT. The program teaches officers to recognize certain cues in a mentally unstable suspect. Their training teaches them to identify the symptoms of a mental illness and co-occurring disorders, which is a term used to describe mental illness paired with the influence of drugs or alcohol. CIT aims at using less lethal force and giving officers a number of suicide prevention techniques. Family members of suspects play a pivotal role in working with officers to provide firsthand knowledge and experience with their relative’s condition. Officers are also given a basic overview of psychiatric medications and the legal issues that arise in dealing with a mentally ill person.
A unique aspect of CIT training is immersing officers in the plight of a mentally ill person; giving them a general idea of the difficulties they face everyday. One example of such is “Hearing Voices,” a training exercise designed to simulate the symptoms of schizophrenia by having an officer deal with a hypothetical situation while wearing headphones playing various recorded voices. Sgt. Steve Smith of the Groton Town PD told CABLE’s CIT newsletter of the valuable perspective he gained from the training. “It was very disconcerting and distracting trying to function on a personal level during the simulation and I’ve gained valuable insight,” Smith said.
An incident that occurred in November 2011 in Norwich, CT saw the use of CIT strategies to talk down a potential jumper from the roof of a parking garage. Officers Damian Martin and Kenneth Nieves spoke with the man and learned that a rash of personal problems drove him to such extreme measures. The officers successfully alleviated the situation and the man was brought to the William H. Backus Hospital for a psychological evaluation.
The CIT program experienced initial success in Memphis, with the police department seeing reductions in arrests, incarceration, injuries to suspects and officers, and SWAT team callouts. CIT has proved cost effective, ultimately benefiting the state and taxpayers. It’s most noteworthy achievement, however, remains raising awareness for mental health issues within the criminal justice system. As Pyers said, “Somebody has to speak for people who don’t have the voice. People don’t take mental illness seriously enough and they should.”