Saving Lives, Changing Communities
By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager
In 1986, when Ann Dino’s injured son Bubba was transported to the hospital in a police car because he had a mental illness and the ambulance wouldn’t take him, she knew things had to change. Dino, then the president of NAMI Memphis, turned to her good friend and fellow NAMI Memphis member at the time, Helen Adamo. Adamo recalls meeting with the mayor and asking him, “How would you like to read the headline tomorrow, ‘Mentally Ill Man Bleeds Out in the Back of a Squad Car’?”
Dino and Adamo were no strangers to calling the police for help when their sons, both living with serious mental illness, were in crisis. Adamo says, “The first time I called the police for my son, they came in with their hands on their guns and their billy clubs and they didn’t know what to do.”
Adamo wrote a proposal for the mayor and city council, asking them to support training for police officers in responding to people with mental illness. Her proposal was based on a team created by the Los Angeles police and focused on the need to reduce injuries of police officers in responding to mental health crisis calls. While some officials were sympathetic, it was a slow going; they pushed the issue for about a year and a half.
Then, in September 1987, Joseph Robinson was shot and killed by Memphis police. Robinson’s mother had called the police because he was hurting himself in the midst of a mental health crisis. Robinson was African American and outrage over the shooting rocked the community.
While community members were calling for the police chief’s resignation, Dino and Adamo looked for a different solution. They approached the mayor with the plan for police mental health training. While speaking at a city council meeting, Dino recalls the crowd pressing against her back. “The police had to escort us out.”
After Robinson’s shooting, things moved quickly. The police chief appointed then-Lt. Walter Crews to head a community taskforce to come up with a response. The taskforce included Dino and Adamo from NAMI Memphis, the heads of the local mental health institutes and the Med, the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. In addition, private mental health providers clamored to be involved in the program. Dino credits Crews’ diplomacy with getting all the players working together.
The taskforce called the new program a crisis intervention team (CIT) and it was built around the partnerships developed through the taskforce. Police training was vital to program’s success, but what made it unique were the personal interactions between individuals with mental illness, their families, mental health professionals and police. Dino says those interactions helped change the way the whole crisis response system worked. “When the officers went to the consumer drop in center and saw consumers who were not in a crisis, saw that they were a real person, that was a tremendous help. Then the professionals rode in the car with officers on involuntary commitment calls…It was an education for everybody. This is what made it work, for everyone to see everything, experience the whole thing.”
After the first CIT training in 1988, Crews handed the reins of the program to Lt. Sam Cochran. Dino recalls being nervous that the program would be handed off to a new person but, she says, “Sam took it into his heart and soul.”
Twenty-five years later, the Memphis CIT program has had remarkable success – cutting injuries to police officers, developing a crisis assessment system for people with mental illness, reducing arrests and improving community relations. Its success has inspired 2,800 communities in 45 states across the country to start CIT programs.
Adamo says that it makes all the difference in the world. Years ago, her family moved to a small town outside of Memphis, and when she had to call police recently, “I asked the officer at the police department, have you had crisis intervention training and he had… It was all the difference in the world. When they come, they know what to do.”