They are the foot soldiers on the front lines of the mental health crisis — police officers and sheriff’s deputies interact with community members every day. But consider this — one in five of those citizens has some sort of mental health illness. How does that change the interaction? At times, we’ve seen it end in unnecessary force.
But in DuPage County, members of the sheriff’s office are working to change the way they respond to those in emotional crisis. It’s a movement they hope will take hold not just locally but across the country.
The setting — a jail cell and an irate inmate.
Inmate: “I shouldn’t even be here in jail!”
Chief Anthony Romanelli, DuPage County Sheriff’s Office: “In the past, these incidents tend to escalate themselves as opposed to de-escalate themselves because the officers don’t necessarily have an understanding of what they are looking at.”
What you’re looking at is a simulation. The actor is portraying signs of schizophrenia – hearing voices and fluctuating her emotions.
Inmate: “I have to leave now.”
Chief Romanelli: “In a jail setting in the past the idea would have been to quickly remove that inmate from the situation, which at times would have created a use of force potentially.”
That’s where crisis intervention team – or CIT — training changes the course of action.
George Chiarito, DuPage County Sheriff’s Deputy: “When I started, you kind of heard the old tales of how things used to go.”
George Chiarito has been with the sheriff’s office for six years. He and his partner for the drill, Mary Lythberg, work in corrections and interface daily with prisoners.
George Chiarito: “Being in corrections, we’re seeing a lot more people come in with these disabilities.”
Chief Romanelli: “The idea behind the whole CIT program is to give these officers skill sets they may not have already had. So the idea behind that is for them to pick up on social cues on people that are experiencing severe mental illness.”
It’s an exercise in de-escalation – not an arrest. The role-playing is part of a 40-hour course developed by the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office with help from local mental health professionals. Participants log time in the classroom before putting their new skills to practice.
Chief Romanelli: “It’s a big commitment for them, and depending on where you are in your career as a law enforcement officer, you’re real engaged or you are kind of skeptical.”
Karen Ayala, DuPage County Health Department executive director: “Programs like this have actually demonstrated lower rates of injury both to the responding officers as well as individuals in the public that they are linking with.”
George Chiarito: “The longer she talks, the more I get a sense of what’s going on with her. Do I need to get her medical help or a psychologist to come over?”
An evaluator takes notes during the interaction and records the exchange. The participants get feedback after each drill. It’s about body language and building a rapport with the citizen in crisis – and it’s a test of patience. The actor in this drill put the officers through the paces with his drowsy demeanor.
Chief Romanelli: “I think it’s just a matter of understanding that we need to evolve the way we deal with people.”
The gentler approach works the same way out in the field – a scenario practiced during the training course. When there’s a call signaling distress at a residence, the idea is to send CIT-trained responders.
Karen Ayala: “Correctly or incorrectly, it’s been the standard of care for police. If there is someone being disruptive in the community, they take them to jail or they take them to the hospital, and that in and of itself when you are feeling so out of control, as many of these individuals are, that further humiliation or loss of control just compounds the situation and makes the next situation even more challenging.”
This is the pin Chief Romanelli – who helped develop the CIT program — wants everyone in the community to recognize.
Chief Romanelli: “Sometimes we will have to invest a considerable amount of time. If it’s 10 minutes, if it’s a half hour, if we can resolve that situation with no use of force, no injury, and peacefully link them to help, we’ll spend all the time we need to spend with them.”
The DuPage County Sheriff’s Office began offering the CIT course in 2017. It’s open to all law enforcement. So far, 225 deputies and officers have been trained. And there’s another CIT component in DuPage County – a post-crisis response team that partners a specially-trained deputy with a mental health professional. That team visits individuals post-crisis to make sure they are linked with the appropriate resources.