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Manhattan Institute

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Don’t Pretend Every Cop Can Play Social Worker

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Don’t Pretend Every Cop Can Play Social Worker

New York Post April 4, 2019
Urban PolicyCrimeNYC
Health PolicyMental Illness

Some critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ThriveNYC initiative have taken aim at the progress of the NYPD’s Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, program. And while the de Blasio administration has made numerous missteps on mental health, failing to expand CIT to the entire NYPD isn’t one of them.

CIT trains patrol officers to ­respond to calls about emotionally disturbed persons. Around one-third of the NYPD has received CIT — too few, in the eyes of critics, given that cops respond to EDP calls at a rate of nearly 500 a day. In March, the mayor committed to giving CIT training to all cops who have direct contact with the public.

Yet CIT makes most sense as a specialized program. Providing the training to every cop is unnecessary and even counterproductive. Just ask CIT’s inventor, Sam ­Cochran. A former police officer in Memphis, Cochran has warned that spreading CIT to all officers risks watering down the program.

The core of CIT training is similar to hostage negotiations. During an emotionally disturbed call, there is a great deal of uncertainty over the risk of harm to the mentally ill individual in question, family members or anyone else who happens to be on scene — not to mention the responding officers. CIT teaches how to “slow it down” or de-escalate the situation to ensure that no one gets hurt.

The plain fact of the matter is that not all cops are going to be equally adept at handling emotionally disturbed calls, just as not ­every cop has what it takes to be a detective or serve on the emergency services unit.

When dispatching cops to the scene of emotionally disturbed calls, maximum care should be taken to send genuine specialists. A targeted CIT program is more likely to ­appreciate the difference between a cop who’s a genuine specialist at ­de-escalation versus someone who went through the training along with the rest of the department.

Suggesting that a CIT program that trains 100 percent of officers is better than one that trains only 33 percent is analogous to judging the effectiveness of a mental health helpline based on the number of calls it has received. Both metrics are overly process-oriented and tell us little about how much these programs are actually improving the lives of the mentally ill.

Across the nation, CIT programs vary greatly in their character and quality. Their success is hard to measure, because the most important outcome is fewer unjustified police shootings of mentally ill individuals. Those events are too rare to allow researchers to determine whether and to what degree a CIT program has been a factor in their reduction.

Indeed, in the three years prior to the full launch of CIT at the NYPD, not one emotionally disturbed call resulted in a fatal police shooting.

Elsewhere, CIT-trained cops have been involved in emotionally disturbed shootings. In June 2017, a Seattle woman named Charleena Lyles was shot to death in an incident involving two officers, both of whom had received CIT training.

Given the hopelessly fragmented and misdirected character of our mental health care system, it is unlikely that we’re going to get emotionally disturbed police shootings permanently down to zero. No amount of de-escalation training will be able to change that brutal reality of modern urban life.

Too much mental-health policy is of a cover-your-behind nature, motivated by the need of public officials to have something to say to reporters in the wake of a mental illness-related tragedy.

Critics of Thrive, among them likely 2021 mayoral candidates, should avoid throwing numbers at problems, which is how Thrive went awry. Instead, they should take the time and opportunity to develop their own ideas for mental health ­reform.

One question they might ponder is: What would it look like to have a mental health care system that didn’t rely on police officers to serve as its first responders?

This piece originally appeared at New York Post

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Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the report, Systems Under Strain: Deinstitutionalization in New York State and City.

Photo by iStock

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