Crisis training may improve police response to mentally ill

Amy Watson

Amy Watson: “emerging evidence” of crisis intervention training effectiveness. Photo: Jenny Fontaine/UIC Public Affairs (click on image for larger file size)

Can specialized training help Chicago police to divert people with mental illness into treatment services and avoid incarceration?

A $3.1 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to researchers in the Jane Addams College of Social Work will fund a study of the effectiveness of a police-based diversion approach that uses crisis intervention teams.

“There is emerging evidence that crisis intervention teams improve police response to persons with mental illnesses,” said Amy Watson, associate professor of social work.

“This study will allow us to more rigorously test crisis intervention team effectiveness and examine factors that support improved longer-term mental health and criminal justice outcomes for persons with serious mental illnesses in the community.”

Results from a previous study in four Chicago police districts suggested that crisis intervention-trained officers were more successful at directing individuals with mental illness to services than were their non-trained peers, and they were less likely to use force with resisting individuals.

The new study will include all 22 Chicago police districts. In addition to examining how trained and untrained officers handle calls involving persons with mental illnesses, the researchers want to recruit the call-subjects for a year-long follow-up after the initial encounter to see how many accessed local mental health services, how many entered the criminal justice system, and how they fared.

Watson said she hopes the study will guide allocation of “scarce” mental health and criminal justice resources and “improve safety and outcomes for police officers, persons with mental illnesses, and Chicago’s many diverse communities.”

Study co-investigators include Don Hedeker and Linda Owens of UIC, Joel Caplan of Rutgers University, Michael Compton of George Washington University, and Jen Wood of Temple University.

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