Responders learn to recognize mental

Goal is to increase officer safety

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Russell Symbal, registered pharmacist with Kootenai Medical Center, answers a question Monday during a National Alliance on Mental Illness Crisis Intervention Team course for local law enforcement personnel aimed at educating police about mental illness.

COEUR d'ALENE - North Idaho law enforcement agencies, mental health care providers and advocates are working together to improve the outcomes of interactions between police officers and citizens who are mentally ill.

A week-long training program dubbed CIT (Crisis Intervention Teams) Academy is taking place in town this week. It is part of a national effort by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

"Because they are usually the first responders when there is a mental health crisis, it's very important for law enforcement to be as educated as possible about mental illness, to learn to use the resources in our communities as effectively as they can be used," said Ann Wimberley, volunteer member of NAMI's Boundary and Bonner County affiliate, and the group's CIT coordinator.

According to NAMI literature, "the first CIT was established in Memphis in 1988 after the tragic shooting by a police officer of a man with a serious mental illness."

Components of the program include community collaboration to identify needs and resources, and a 40-hour training program for law enforcement officers and support personnel to educate them about mental illnesses and orient them to the local mental health care system.

Former Bonners Ferry Police Department Sgt. Foster Mayo said in 2005 there were 14 million arrests nationally and 1.1 million were people who have been or will be diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Mayo, one of the CIT program's law enforcement facilitators, was on the police force in Salt Lake City earlier in his career. He retired in October from the Bonners Ferry agency with 32 years of law enforcement experience.

"The main goal is officer safety and to make it safer for people in the community with mental illness," Mayo said. "We want to give them tools, increase their empathy so they can cope with mental illness."

Medical service personnel, dispatchers and officers from the Coeur d'Alene, Kootenai County Sheriff's and the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Police departments are attending the training sessions.

It's the second time the NAMI program has been brought to the region.

"We hope that Idaho will become one of the states that has a statewide program," Mayo said.

Similar CIT efforts are taking place in five of the state's other mental health service regions, he said. There are seven community-based, state-funded regions in Idaho.

Mayo said the need exists no matter what the topography or demographics of a region are.

Recently in Bonner County, several months passed with no requests for officers to respond to a mental health crisis, he said, but then they had three calls last week.

CIT programs create a partnership through which officers are able to provide solutions other than incarceration when appropriate, he said. Persons with mental illnesses can receive treatment rather than be jailed, Mayo explained.

In areas where CIT programs have been initiated, Mayo said arrests of persons with serious mental illnesses have been reduced by 58 percent. Officer injuries when responding to such calls have dropped by 80 percent.

NAMI literature indicates that in Albuquerque police shootings declined after the introduction of CIT.

Ann Wimberly, a Hope resident and retired physician, said this kind of training is becoming even more important. With cuts to state funding for mental health services, Wimberley said there are less and less resources for people experiencing a mental health crisis, so the police department is the only place to turn.

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