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Police in Bellevue, Washington led the nation in crisis intervention training and launched a highly successful pilot program designed to de-escalate mental health crises.

But staffing shortages and elongated response times across the department have forced the program to halt, according to Officer Craig Hanaumi. The blow for community policing advocates comes as nearly a fifth of American adults report experiencing mental illness. 

When it was active, the Community Crisis Assistance Team (CCAT) facilitated joint responses from BPD and the fire department. The team complemented both interdepartmental Crisis Intervention Training and state-mandated training taking place at BPD.

“Amount of times that [calls concerning self-harm] gets resolved without any injury is astronomical,” Hanaumi said. 

But because there is a shortage of patrol officers, Hanaumi doesn’t foresee specialized units like CCAT being implemented until staffing-related issues are resolved.

National data surrounding fatal police interactions determined that the prioritization of Crisis Intervention Training in police departments has faltered in recent years. Since 2015, almost a quarter of people killed by police in America had a known mental illness. 

The city’s website stated that the program’s goals were to “improve community/police response to persons suffering from a behavioral health crisis by connecting them with appropriate social services and diverting them away from the criminal justice system.” CCAT was comprised officers who had expressed interest in that unit. They used their expertise and would attend additional training pertaining to mental health.

Hanaumi maintained that the role of addressing mental health crises is being placed on police forces. 

When police arrive at the scene of a mental health crisis, he said, everything is secondary to making the scene safe. In order to do that, officers may utilize physical training to physically manipulate the individual.

“When I say physical, I mean training that is connected to being able to control another human being,” said Officer Hanaumi. 

The execution of the procedures learned in this training varies greatly and is dependent on the factors of a situation. For example, verbal de-escalation requires certain elements to exist in the situation: time, distance, and cover. 

Hanaumi emphasized the importance of officers being both proficient in exercising verbal de-escalation and being prepared with physical training, adding that the “verbal piece is completely connected to being comfortable enough to protect yourself.” 

“[Officers] only can start doing the verbal pieces when you know for sure that this person is safe,” Hanaumi said. “They can’t do anything to me or someone else.”

He explained how once the scene was safe, the next step was to look to separate entities — such as mental health professionals — to provide further care. However, officers have to respond to symptoms and do not themselves give diagnoses.

“We have to deal with the behavior,” Hanaumi said. “Whatever’s causing it is good to know, but we have to address the action.”

He added that when addressing mental health crises, partnerships in the community are an indispensable tool.

The city’s final evaluation of the CCAT determined that the program was, “highly successful in diverting people from jails and hospitals, decreased police use of force, and significantly increased the amount of time CCAT officers spent on calls.”

Still, the program was not continued after its initial pilot launch. For now, the larger police force is once again responsible for the resolution of all mental health crisis calls. 

Because there is already a shortage of patrol, he doesn’t foresee specialized units, such as the CCAT, being implemented until the elongated response time caused by these staffing shortages is addressed.