Police officers in the entire St. Louis metropolitan area might be expected to deal with mentally ill people on a daily basis, but they're not required to have any training about it.
Last week, when the Post-Dispatch published a story and video of St. Louis City police officers beating Mario Crump, a mentally ill man, most people felt sympathy for the man getting beat. But many also had empathy for the officers who had the difficult job of restraining a belligerent man whose own family had called the police on him.
There was also a lot of anger over the method the police officers used: Several hard baton swings and at least one swift punch on a man who was kicking at the officers while sitting in a chair. The image of two officers standing over and beating a man in a chair gave the impression that these St. Louis Metropolitan police officers did not know how to deal with a mentally ill person.
However, the Post-Dispatch story pointed out that both officers had been trained in dealing with mentally ill people. They each had undergone Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, a popular model of training designed for police officers who deal with mentally ill people who act belligerently.
Here's the video:
CIT training is the predominant mental-health training used by police departments nationwide, and it is conducted by the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation's largest nonprofit mental health advocacy organization, according to its website.
In the entire St. Louis metropolitan area, including the counties of St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin, and the East St. Louis area, 4,000 officers over the past ten years have received special training in dealing with mental illnesses, according to Darwyn Walker, executive director of NAMI St. Louis, which conducts the training in this area.
That 4,000 number does not account for officers who have left, retired or are not still on patrol duty.
The training is completely voluntary and not a part of normal police training. It consists of a 40-hour course that takes place over a single week. NAMI pays for the training, and police departments pay for the officers' 40 hours of time. The coordination is part of a nearly twenty-year effort to get police officers around the country more understanding of mental illness and prevent violence and incarceration of the mentally ill.
"Diverting people from jail is the whole intent of the program," Walker tells Daily RFT. "It's 40 hours of training, learning skills on how to manage situations where people are having psychiatric stress or psychiatric behaviors, and eventually get the person to the hospital."
When facing a person who is acting belligerent and potentially violent, Walker says that officers are trained to calm the person down and give them space until they submit voluntarily or it's safe to restrain them. This is what is supposed to set it apart from regular police duty: assessing special attention is needed and then acting accordingly.
However, the training offers no predetermined point in an altercation to tell an officer when he or she must use force because each police department has its own protocol for when physical force must be used.
"The officers may be trained in CIT, but if they feel threatened, they automatically go to their standard police training and they use the protocol of 'use of force' that's designated by their department of how to use it," Walker says.
Given that the CIT program is voluntary and police-department protocols can vary, the question of whether there are clashes in the program's training and police procedure arises. But Dr. Randolph Dupont, who heads the national CIT program out of the University of Memphis (the nickname for the program is the "Memphis Model" from its 1988 origin from the Memphis Police Department), says that this is not normally the case. See also: Why Do Some St. Louis County Cops Wear Military-Style Camouflage Uniforms?
Not commenting on the specific case involving St. Louis Metropolitan police and Crump, Dupont tells us that CIT corresponds with most police departments' policy of when to use force.
"There is a lot of judgment in 'use of force' and 'use of force' issues are indeed complicated," Dupont says. "But there should not be many inconsistencies in use of force training and CIT training."
He adds that in many cases, a public-safety trainer from a police department will attend CIT training and address any issues of protocol that overlap.
Walker, who has seen the video and works with St. Louis police officers, says he didn't like what he had seen.
"My opinion of what occurred is that that was excessive, but not having seen everything that occurred before and after, it's hard to judge that," he says, adding that NAMI St. Louis has been in contact with St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson's office to discuss ways to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
CIT is a well-respected program, and news articles from around the country have proclaimed it as an effective way to give police officers the training to deal with difficult situations involving mentally ill individuals. It's also cost-effective because NAMI pays for the training.
But as a voluntary, one-week course that the majority of police officers are not trained in, Walker says it can't realistically be seen as the complete solution to the problem of police dealing with the mentally ill.
"[Police officers] are in this because the system of care and access to mental-health services in the state of Missouri and the nation is so dysfunctional that you have to have mental health courts to get into services," he says.
Walker adds: "You have to have police officers [handling mentally ill people] because the system of care that's supposed to be providing these services isn't available to the general public. If that system was working, then you'd see very few of these instances, and it wouldn't be the police's problem. Police are basically doing something they weren't originally designed to do."
Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:
E-mail him at Ray.Downs@RiverfrontTimes.com.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.