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CIT training improves police response to mental health calls, but many rural counties not yet reached

Fall instruction in Grand Island looks to expand the program's reach
Posted at 6:15 PM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 19:15:35-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — In the basement of the Nebraska Safety Council last month, law enforcement officers trained for a week to add a new area of expertise: crisis intervention training.

On Thursday and Friday afternoon, some practiced what they'd learned, entering a short scenario with a panel set to provide feedback.

"You ever take anybody out without asking them their name?" an actor playing the subject of a wellness check asked one of the scenario's responding officers.

It served as a reminder of a step the officer forgot.

"Good question. What is your name, sir?"

"My name's Gary. Now I'm a human being."

It's not a required training for law enforcement. Funded by a grant from the Department of Justice, the program, called Heartland Crisis Intervention Team or Heartland CIT, has been in Omaha since 2006.

They'll hold training in Omaha nine times this year, five of those the most common types of training often attended by law enforcement.

More than 1,200 people have taken part since the program's inception.

Police academies might touch on the topic, but this provides more depth. It's designed to be a specialty for officers and not something all are trained in, said Rebecca Hancock, who heads the program out of the offices of Lutheran Family Services.

"It’s completely different from normal police training because it really is a redirection out of the justice system," she said. "It’s not a crime to be mentally ill."

Hancock is former law enforcement with the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office.

"I always had a problem as an officer, say I got called to a convenience store and somebody was clearly, you know, hearing voices or seeing visions, and have to arrest them for trespassing," she said. "They’re not getting healthier in jail, in fact, a lot of times their mental health deteriorated."

The 40-hour training also features speakers who have experienced a mental health crisis themselves, information about active listening, de-escalation, and resources available in the community.

Hancock said knowing what she knows now would have helped her when she was a school resource officer. Hancock helped a teenage girl inform her parents that she's pregnant, but wasn't tuned into the context of other things happening in the family or to resources that could've helped, she said.

The are other efforts to improve responses to calls involving mental health in the region. Omaha Police has a behavioral health and wellness unit. Lutheran Family Services and Heartland Family Services send co-responders, mental health professionals, to assist officers when local agencies they partner with request it.

At Sarpy County Sheriff's Office, Sgt. Rob Hillabrand is the mental health project coordinator.

"We are trying to hit all aspects in caring for these members of the community that are suffering from mental illness, rather from just constant incarceration," he said.

He points to several steps Sarpy County and its sheriff's office are taking:

  • Wellness Court, a problem-solving court for people with a mental illness facing a nonviolent felony charge.
  • The new jail plans to have a forensic psychiatrist and a behavioral health unit.
  • The sheriff's office uses a tool to communicate information for people with repeated encounters with police, such as things that may trigger them.
  • All sheriff's deputies are trained in mental health first aid.
  • More than 30% of law enforcement have attended the week-long Heartland CIT, and more than 40% of Sarpy County Sheriff's deputies.

Hillabrand said the death of Zachary Bearheels in 2017 motivated officers to change. Bearheels was in a mental health crisis and had just been kicked off a southbound bus. His mother requested he be taken to a crisis center, but officers decided they'd take him back to the bus station instead. He died after being punched and tased by police.

Hillabrand said law enforcement use vacation time to take the training.

"It’s all donated time so I think that speaks volumes that everyone is that committed to trying to make an impact on the mental health crisis," he said.

Crisis Intervention Training is popular in Nebraska's most populated areas, but just 18 of Nebraska's 93 counties have had a participant since the program's opening. The training 3 News Now was invited to last month saw more people trained, but no new counties were added to the list.

A date isn't set, but additional training is being planned for this fall at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island, which could help the growth.

"I’m thrilled that our classes are full and that we have waiting lists," Hancock said, "but I always want more. So I would love to see a CIT class every month."

The Fremont Police Department does have CIT-trained officers but faces challenges of its own.

Chief of Police Jeff Elliot says the problem is staffing when officers are away at training.

"The problem is paying the overtime to cover the street while they’re gone," he said.

Fremont Police work with Lutheran Family Services co-responders, but because of the distance from Omaha, that typically happens on a video call.

"We’re grateful for the iPads, we certainly are, but the face-to-face was more beneficial," he said.

His department had a grand-funder co-responder starting in early 2018 through late 2019. Since the co-responder's departure, he says they've seen an increase in emergency mental committals.

He hopes to add a co-responder to the city's staff, which would require city council action.

Elliot said much of the department found itself with an attitude change after the success of their grant-funded co-responder.

"As a police officer, your experience with the mental health field is not always positive. You’re not always seeing things get resolved all the time," he said. "Initially, I don’t think myself or many of my staff thought it would be beneficial. We were wrong. It was extremely beneficial."

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