Ask A Cop: What to do in a Crisis if your Community Doesn’t Have CIT
By Herb Cotner and Sherry Cusumano
Q: My community doesn't have CIT. If I have to call the police in a crisis, what I should I do to ensure the best outcome for me and my family?
Inform the Officer, then Step Back
A: Our answer is the same regardless of whether the officer responding to the call is CIT trained or not. A good police officer wants to do the right thing in these situations and you can help him by sharing what you’ve learned about your loved one. If you have officers coming to your house, you will want to greet them where they can safely talk with you while also being able to see clearly the family member you called about or the location where they currently are.
You want to calmly tell them everything you know that either upsets your family member or that has helped in the past to resolve similar crises. Let the officer know if your loved one is suicidal, if he is psychotic or has a history of psychosis. Communicate this in common but precise terms saying, for example, that your loved one “is seeing the devil trying to attack him and in the past when that has happened, has gotten a knife or a big weapon for protection.” Let them know if in the past when someone approached him, he attacked them with the weapon.
It can be hard to keep calm and keep track of all the important information. One very useful thing that you can do is to have your NAMI crisis file complete and up to date so that you can share that information with the officer.
After you’ve filled in the officer, answer their questions and then you can ask questions such as, “Officer, what do you want us to do? Where would you like us to stand when you talk with our family member?”
Helping the Officer Stay Calm and Safe
In the CIT class, we teach our officers that when they respond to calls, they need to recognize that there are multiple crisis events occurring at the same time. The first crisis is happening with the individual who has the illness. The second crisis is the one going on with the rest of the family; if you were able to control the situation, then you would not have called the police to intervene. What you want to do is to behave in such a manner as to prevent a third crisis event. You definitely don’t want the officer responding to your call to spiral into a crisis as well! If you challenge the officer’s authority, yell at him or start telling him what he needs to do, you hinder the officer in doing his job. The more stressed the officer becomes, the harder it is for him or her to do their job and the likelihood of a bad outcome is increased.
Why Officers Act the Way they Do
From our interaction with NAMI families, we’ve learned that law enforcement have not done a good job of explaining why they do what they do. All good police officers work from a perspective of maintaining safety, and are trained to ensure the safety of the public, themselves and other officers. When they don’t have much information, they react to the immediate circumstances to keep everyone safe. That’s why informing them in advance can help prevent a tragedy. However, continuing to engage the officer after that initial conversation is distracting and can make it hard for the officer to focus.
Perspective on Hard Situations
Stepping back from a volatile situation is very hard. Here is the perspective that we find helpful. It comes from our experience teaching Family-to-Family classes. In the beginning, Family-to-Family students often want to fix their family member, but they soon learn to focus on loving their family member while also letting go of things they can’t control. NAMI and its educational courses do an excellent job of teaching us to identify what we can and cannot control. We are able to control our own behavior and we can’t control other people. Sometimes as our behavior changes, that can have an impact on the situation. The same principle applies here: when police come to your house, you can’t control their behavior. But you can control yours, and you can assist the officer as he does his job and not hinder him or her in getting the situation resolved.
About Ask a Cop
Ask a Cop is an occasional column produced by NAMI’s CIT Center, answering common questions about law enforcement and mental health issues. The column is an opportunity to learn about the law enforcement officer’s perspective on how officers, providers and individuals and families affected by mental illness can work together to improve crisis response. To ask a question, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask a Cop.” Please note that we will not be able to answer all questions or to discuss individual legal cases.
Contributors: Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner is a 25 year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. He has served Dallas PD as a CIT officer and is the department’s Crisis Intervention Mental Health Liaison. Sr. Corporal Cotner is the Vice President of NAMI Dallas and the 2013 recipient of NAMI’s Cochran Criminal Justice Award, a national award for compassionate responses in law enforcement.
Sherry Cusumano, RN, LCDC, MS is the President of NAMI Dallas and Executive Director of Community Education and Clinical Development at Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She’s been trained in the Memphis Model CIT Program and has worked closely with the Dallas Police Department to assist in providing CIT training to numerous law enforcement agencies in the region.