TOPICS > Nation

How Memphis has changed the way police respond to mental health crises

November 7, 2015 at 3:19 PM EDT
For decades, the Memphis Police Department has pioneered a model to better serve people experiencing a mental health crisis. The "Memphis Model," which aims to keep both officers and citizens safe and send fewer people to jail, has spread to almost 3,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Police officer Christopher Ross patrols a precinct on the south side of Memphis …an area with a very high rate of crime.  Ross sees a lot of violence, drug use and prostitution.  But those aren’t the only types of calls that Ross responds to.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: The mom’s involved with her son and he’s diagnosed with adhd, and mood disorder, and she said she’s been taking his meds, but he’s being unruly, so we are going to go see what we can do to help.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Ross is part of the Memphis police department’s “Crisis Intervention Team” or CIT.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: What’s going on?

MEGAN THOMPSON: Officers specially trained to handle people with mental illness.  Here, Ross finds a teenage boy in crisis. His mom says he’s being bullied at school.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: So everybody at the school knows that you are smart, that you’ve got something going for yourself, and what they are trying to do is stop you from being all that you can be.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Ross is trained to de-escalate situations using mostly verbal techniques…to keep both officers and citizens safe… and keep people with mental health issues out of jail.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: As a matter of fact i’m going to give you my number so when you have a problem call me. Okay? If you’re feeling sad, if you’re feeling depressed, call me. And you can tell me whatever you want to tell me. I don’t care what it is.  Handshake on that.

MEGAN THOMPSON: After 20 minutes, the teen is calm and agrees to go back inside.  Memphis started its CIT program 27 years ago, after the police shot and killed a man with mental illness who charged at them with a knife.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The City formed a task force including the police and the national alliance on mental illness.  At the time, university of Memphis psychiatry professor randy dupont was directing the City’s main psychiatric emergency service.  He helped develop the CIT program.

RANDOLPH DUPONT: In an event that’s going to escalate and become a crisis, it’s going to be those first few minutes that are pretty critical. So, what they thought about, when they came up with this concept, was why don’t we take some of that expertise, let’s identify those officers that want to do this — that could be good at it. Give them the best training we can find, and then let’s look and see what kind of differences that makes.

MEGAN THOMPSON: That training starts with changing officers attitudes and perceptions.  Dupont says, people in crisis often act out of fear and may not understand what’s happening around them.  An untrained officer could interpret such behavior as defiance, or “non-compliance.”

RANDOLPH DUPONT: Officers are often trained in the academy to see non-compliance and re- and respond with greater use of force. That’s part of their training. But in CIT, what we’re trying to say to the officers is, “let’s analyze the non-compliance. Let’s look strategically at it.” So, we’re looking for that different interpretation of behavior.

VINCENT BEASLEY: First of all, we have a talk about having compassion.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Major Vincent Beasley is in charge of the Memphis CIT program. He patrolled the streets as a CIT officer for 8 years.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Are all officers cut out to do this kind of work?

VINCENT BEASLEY: I don’t think so. I really think it takes a special person to do that. Not everybody’s cut out for that. Because you have to have patience. And you- and you have to really care about people. And you have to understand that it’s not the individual himself.  It’s something that’s going on. It’s something, you know, in his brain that’s not working properly. It’s a chemical imbalance.

MEGAN THOMPSON: CIT is having a measurable impact. Major Beasley says of the 14,000 911 calls last year that CIT officers responded to, only 19 encounters resulted in injuries to a person with mental illness.  And the vast majority ended without a person being detained.  Around 4 thousand were taken to mental treatment facilities.  And only about 600 were taken to jail.

VINCENT BEASLEY: So, we’re not taking nearly as many people to penal facilities that are- that are suffering from mental illnesses. Because we realize they don’t need to be there in most cases.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Those with mental illness who do get arrested wind up here, at the Shelby County jail, where there is special wing – with 46 cells for people with mental illness.  Hundreds more inmates on psychiatric medication are housed in the jail’s general population, where many are also offered psychiatric treatment and group therapy for things like addiction and anger management.

RANDOLPH DUPONT: What else would you all do when he throws up this, ‘how are you going to help me?’

MEGAN THOMPSON: Joining the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team is voluntary, and officers and dispatchers must attend 40 hours of training. There are three days of intensive role-playing…based on real situations officers have faced in the field.

OFFICER 1: I see that you’re very upset.  And I want to help you.

OFFICER 2: Nobody cares about me.  And with me out of a job, man, there’s nothing for me to be here for.

OFFICER 3:  I want to say to say from the standpoint, like you said, dealing with being handled by CIT.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The trainees – dressed here in plain clothes – also spend a day meeting people with mental illness … to learn about what it’s like to live with their conditions … and about their experiences with the police.

PERSON 1:  The sheriff’s department came to my house and kicked the door in.

PERSON 2: He told me to shut my frickin’ mouth.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: Could you have a paramedic make the scene over here?

MEGAN THOMPSON: today There are 274 active CIT officers like Chris Ross, on the Memphis force of almost 2100, or about one of every eight officers.  The CIT program is operated within the department’s existing budgets.  Officers wear these pins to identify themselves.  Ross, who’s been CIT for three years, never answers a call without back-up.

MEGAN THOMPSON: When he is flagged down by a man who says he’s a vietnam veteran and has bipolar disorder, Ross pulls over to talk.  He uses simple strategies: introducing himself and being calm.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: I’m fficer Ross.  But call me Chris, ok?

MEGAN THOMPSON: Ross says a huge part of his job is simply listening and keeping tabs on people he knows might need help. Here he checks up on a man he’s gotten to know.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: Third Eye, you in there?

MEGAN THOMPSON: He lives in an abandoned motel.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: Are you asleep? Come out here and talk to me. I just want to make sure you’re doing alright. Make sure everything is going good.

MAN: I got all-seeing eyes.  I’m a power ranger and a super hero.  You’re really on my side.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: I’m on your side.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: You always try to get them comfortable and let them know I’m here to help. And whatever they say, you listen to it. You repeat it to them so they’ll know that you’re listening to them.  And eventually, you’ll establish that relationship, and they’ll feel more or less like you’re there to help them, versus trying to lock them up.

MEGAN THOMPSON: If Memphis police determine people might pose a danger to themselves or others, an officer can take them to the crisis assessment center for evaluation and medication.  Many of the services here are free.  It’s inside the Memphis Mental Health Institute, so if they need long-term, in-patient care, patients don’t have to go far.  After they leave, there’s also a new out-patient program for continuing psychiatric care.  Officials say it’s reduced the number of repeat visits to both the crisis center and the institute.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Mark Havener has been a patient at the Memphis mental health institute. He has bipolar disorder and began having psychotic episodes 17 years ago…locking himself in a closet for hours at a time and attempting to kill himself.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Do you have any idea how many times you’ve tried to end your life?

MARK HAVENER: Lost count at about 25.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Twenty-five?

MARK HAVENER: And I lost count of my hospitalizations at about…I got tired of counting at 25.

MEGAN THOMPSON: During one psychotic episode in 2002, Havener started to strangle his wife.

MARK HAVENER: I grabbed her by the throat. And I got up and I shoved her up against the inside of the front door of the house.

MEGAN THOMPSON: After he let her go, she called 9-1-1 and CIT officers responded.

MARK HAVENER: By this time, I’m pretty much non-verbal. I can’t express what’s going on, because it’s a hurricane inside of me. Maelstrom. They don’t even handcuff me because they- they see what kind of condition i’m in. Treating me as a human being in crisis and not a potential perpetrator.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Havener was hospitalized and never faced criminal charges. He got treatment and today, he is stable, has reconciled with his wife, and works as a counselor to others with mental illness.  He’s also become an advocate, sharing his story with the new CIT trainees.

MEGAN THOMPSON: the strategies developed in Memphis are now called the “Memphis model” – and have now been adopted by almost 3000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Studies have shown that CIT-trained officers are less likely to arrest people with mental illness than non-trained officers.  And for Chris Ross, that’s one of the things he likes most about this job. The potential to help people … rather than put them in jail.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: And that’s something that I can remember that will keep me going to when sometimes things get rough on the streets. That’s why I work, that’s why do it. Because if we get to the point where we’re making a difference, we won’t have to lock so many people up.