December 12, 2012

Maine police make spotty use of crisis training

Issues of cost and staffing limit participation in a program that could protect the mentally ill and officers alike.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Tuesday, Feb.21, 2012. Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry outside the Sagadahoc County Courthouse and Sherff's Dept. in Bath.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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The state police tactical team, which responded to 35 percent of the department's deadly force incidents, arrives with a crisis negotiation team. And on a daily basis, Williams said, troopers use their skills to defuse testy situations.

In an interview earlier this year, Williams told the Portland Press Herald that he didn't realize that only 14 troopers were CIT-certified, and said he will explore ways to increase participation.

"We should make an attempt to get more people into this," he said.

That might require trimming expenses elsewhere. Each of the force's six troops has a minimum staffing requirement. Sending a trooper to a week of training can mean bringing a replacement in on overtime.

Last week, Williams was asked by the newspaper to update this year's CIT-training efforts. Some troopers were signed up for a course in southern Maine, he said, but the course was cancelled. He wasn't aware of plans for 2013, noting that the training isn't mandatory.

"If people have an interest, we'll send them," he said.

TRAINING OFFERED CLOSE TO HOME

CIT is free to Maine departments, except for a small registration fee. Roughly 1,400 police and corrections officers and emergency responders have been certified since 2000. That sounds like a lot. But that figure includes corrections workers at county jails, and it doesn't capture turnover and retirement. Exact breakdowns aren't available, but the vast majority of the 3,500 Maine law enforcement workers on the streets don't have this training. This year, a total of 236 people from a range of agencies and positions were certified.

CIT training grew out of a tragic police shooting of a mentally ill man in Memphis, Tenn., in 1988. Today, the "Memphis model" is being taught in hundreds of communities and 35 states. The 40-hour program is aimed at uniformed patrol officers and corrections officers.

CIT came to Maine in 2001, after a number of high-profile suicides in the corrections system. It's taught by staff from the Maine affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which said it receives $90,000 a year in state money to run training programs.

The alliance also teaches a mandatory, seven-hour course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where virtually all of Maine's new police officers receive training. The curriculum includes instruction in identifying people with mental illness and suicidal tendencies and learning the basics of defusing a crisis. Students also get a two-hour session on "de-escalation skills."

UNCERTAINTY OVER PROGRAM'S VALUE

But the basic, nine hours of training is really just an academic introduction. It's a primer for police who increasingly find themselves responding to calls involving psychological problems, substance abuse and domestic strife.

This trend can make CIT a valuable tool, but a subtle one. The training is successful when nothing happens, and departments typically don't tally statistics on non-events. There are no Maine figures on CIT - except for one survey of corrections officers - so advocates can't point to a track record in the field.

That shortcoming exists nationally as well. Klinger, the University of Missouri professor, said he has long sought more research into "non-events" to better understand why they ended as they did.

Buy-in is another hurdle. Because participation in CIT is voluntary, it's up to administrators to make training a priority and for officers to embrace it.

"Your personnel has to be ready for it," said Merry, the Sagadahoc sheriff. "For some guys, it's not their cup of tea. They're not interested. And I'm sure there are some chiefs out there who aren't sold on it."

Participation rates vary widely among Maine departments. The Portland Police Department leads the state, with 107 CIT-certified staff among its roughly 160 staff, and a goal of putting all officers through the program. By contrast, the Biddeford Police Department wasn't even on the list until April.

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