NHPD hopes to expand training on mental illness in crimes

The New Haven Police Department has applied for $15,000 in funding from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to expand an officer training program that teaches its officers how to intervene in crimes involving people with mental disabilities.

The Crime Intervention Team training, in which 26 NHPD officers have already participated, is a 40-hour program that involves a series of discussions with mental health professors as well as simulations where the officers must practice confronting individuals with behavioral health disorders, Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison said.

Mattison said the CIT was first introduced last May at the unanimous suggestion of the Board of Aldermen after a NHPD officer shot and killed a mentally ill man last year who had allegedly stopped taking medication and began chasing the police with a knife. The success of the four-year-old CIT in New London, Conn. — the first CIT in New England — drew the attention of the Elm City alders, who were looking to prevent similar situations in the future, Mattison said.

“Everybody felt very bad, and we were eager to have a training program to help prevent this from happening again,” he said. “This is a program many of us feel very strongly about.”

Mattison said the funding would be used to cover the overtime wages of the officers participating in the 40-hour program.

The MHAS Department has used money from a federal Byrne grant to fund the introduction of CIT programs in Connecticut.

NHPD Sgt. Vincent Anastasio, a member of the CIT, said the training program greatly improved his understanding of people with behavioral disorders, teaching him to relate to and empathize with them.

“It can do nothing … but enhance our experiences and give us more resources to help people with disabilities,” Anastasio said. “Even the simplest tasks can be difficult [for people with disabilities]. There are times people with disabilities get violent, and they have to be handled in a certain delicate way.”

The CIT, which now exists in more than 400 cities nationwide, was first conceived in Memphis, Tenn., in 1988, and has improved the Memphis Police Department’s crime response and decreased its use of force and number of arrests, MPD Major Sam Cochran said in an e-mail. Cochran said that while all officers receive some standard training in how to deal with individuals who have behavioral disorders, the CIT program offers them a special insight into the effects of mental illnesses on the behavior of those affected.

“We believe all officers should have training pertaining to mental illnesses, but a CIT officer possesses those attributes that denote the officer as a specialist,” Cochran said. “CIT is more than just training.”

Sgt. Paul Vance, commanding officer at the State Department of Public Safety, said all officers already receive training in dealing with people with mental illness but that any additional education will benefit officers and the community.

“It’s a necessity,” Vance said. “It’s something that all law enforcement officers have, and if the city of New Haven is looking to expand its training program, then it will certainly help improve things.”

Beverly Walton, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Mental Health Association, said the incapacity of the police in dealing with people with mental illness is a nationwide problem and that she is pleased New Haven is taking steps to improve its officers’ training in that area.

“In a variety of towns some of the officers are better trained than others,” she said. “They certainly have a lot of good people in New Haven at the Mental Health Department who can help.”

The MHAS Department has already created a CIT in Waterbury, Conn., and is currently implementing a similar program in Hartford as well as New Haven.

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