Mental health crisis training helps ASU police respond to students in crisis

ASU PD is part of an international program to change how officers respond to people experiencing mental illness

After receiving numerous 911 calls, Officer Becky Garcia arrived to see an ASU student “making threats” on campus in a “manic state,” she said. Four officers surrounded the student, then Garcia recognized him and called out his name. 

The situation de-escalated quickly after and the other officers backed off. Helping the student focus on her, Garcia pieced together that he was not taking his prescribed medication for his mental illness.

During her mental health crisis training, she later learned, that’s exactly what she should do: Calm manic episodes and avoid police confrontation. 

Garcia is a crime prevention officer and liaison for mental health crisis training for ASU PD, a voluntary training for ASU police officers in which she helps train them to “make the human connection.”

“It wasn't by any specialized training, but the message is eye-opening," she said. "That connection is so important in our world. Whether someone's in a manic state, sometimes you can make that connection with them and de-escalate a situation.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 19% of U.S. adults experience mental illness, and research shows that up to 10% of all police interactions with the public involve someone affected by mental illness.

Police officers are often the first responders to cases involving mental health crises, but they may be ill-equipped to handle these situations without the proper training.

"If a person is in crisis and you just go through the minimum, you're not really fixing the root problem, and you might actually come across that same situation later," ASU Police Officer Robert Van Buhler said.

Members of the grassroots organization Tempe Against Police Violence, attended a Tempe City Council meeting on June 6 to address police violence and mandatory mental health training for police officers. They believe that mental health training could help stop members of the public from being shot. 

Jessica Behrens, a member of Tempe Against Police Violence, spoke about a June 3 incident that occurred in Walnut Creek, California, that resulted in the death of her friends Miles Hall who experienced mental illness.

“My friend would not have been killed this weekend had they had (special) training,” she said. 

Incidents like Hall's are why the National Alliance of Mental Illness created the Crime Intervention Team Program which connects officers with mental health professionals and community leaders to avoid harmful outcomes to individuals in crisis and the officers called to intercept them.

The training involves education on spotting the symptoms of mental illness and forming connection with community partners. Van Buhler said that if an officer determines someone needs mental help, they can take any person to Veteran's Affairs for treatment.

Officers also role play interactions at 911 scenes to learn how to de-escalate situations. 

"It was quite possibly the most realistic role playing I've ever had," Van Buhler said. "You pretty much forgot that you were in a role-playing scenario. You kind of felt like you were there."

Van Buhler is one of the officers who volunteered to enter the CIT training. The program has grown as police officers in more police departments across the country have opted into the voluntary training over the past five years, Garcia said.

“We used to not have any type of resources as police officers to be able to really work to de-escalate or be able to differentiate between a mental health issue and a safety issue,” Garcia said. 

Some police officers are taking on the responsibility to not just enforce the laws but be first responders who connect those in need to mental health services and "maybe get them on the road to recovery," Van Buhler said. 

The first CIT Program was developed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988. The original Memphis model suggested that 20 to 25% of officers be CIT-trained so that one such officer be available at all times, according to an article published in Best Practices in Mental Health.

However, different police departments have taken differing approaches to who is trained, with some opting to train 100% of their police force. Garcia said that 40% of ASU police officers have received CIT training.

While the number of CIT-trained officers is growing, a majority of officers have not opted into the program which Van Buhler described as the "most meaningful" and "probably one of the most useful" of any training he's attended. Garcia agreed.

"It makes me a better officer," she said. "It makes me more compassionate to the people I run into on the street. It makes me question more and ask the right questions." 

Overall, Garcia said that every officer can benefit from the CIT program since it is up to officers to determine whether something is a crime, or someone is making a call for help. 

“Things are less black and white,” Garcia said. "It's opened up a whole new way of being able to talk to people, it gives you much more compassion, the ability to de-escalate and learn more about disorders."


Reach the reporter at cbudnies@asu.edu and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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