January 14

OUR OPINION: Crisis training for police makes everyone safer

It’s especially noteworthy that state police have embraced the training for troopers.

When interacting with someone in crisis, a police officer doesn’t have much time to establish a rapport and get that person the help they need. Without special training in de-escalation, there’s a higher likelihood of an officer using deadly force to gain control or being injured in the line of duty.

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More Maine state troopers are taking part in specialized training in recognizing and de-escalating confrontations stemming from mental illness. Without such skills, there’s a higher likelihood of an officer’s using deadly force to gain control or being injured in the line of duty.

2001 File Photo/The Associated Press

That’s why it’s a positive development that some Maine police departments provide Crisis Intervention Team training for all or almost all of their officers. And it’s even better that more Maine State Police troopers are getting CIT certification and that the head of the agency wants to see this continue.

A 2012 Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram report found that 42 percent of the people shot by Maine police officers since 2000 were mentally ill. State police, moreover, are involved in more police shootings than any other agency. So the greater the number of specially trained troopers in the field, the greater the likelihood of security for the public, people with mental illness and troopers themselves.

The CIT program calls for 40 hours of training by the Maine affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in recognizing and mitigating confrontations resulting from a mental health crisis.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty has been a vocal proponent of crisis intervention training, which around 80 percent of his officers have completed, Proper crisis intervention, he said, can help keep the mentally ill out of jail, improving outcomes both for the individual and the community, which bears the significant costs of incarceration.

In Waterville, Chief Joseph Massey said about 20 percent of his 30 officers are trained. Chief Robert Gregoire in Augusta said 30 percent of his officers have completed the training. Both local chiefs said they plan to send the remaining officers to the training as circumstances permit.

In southern Maine, Portland and South Portland originally intended to have one CIT-trained officer per shift, but they told the Press Herald last week they now believe the training is essential for all officers.

Mental health calls can take time to resolve, and there can be more than one during a shift. And in a quickly unfolding situation, it’s better to have someone on the scene with intervention skills than to have to wait for a specialist.

Relatively few troopers, though, have been instructed in these techniques. Between 2001, when CIT came to Maine, and October 2012, when the Press Herald report appeared, only 14 of the 200 troopers who patrol Maine’s highways had received CIT training. And of the 101 police shootings in Maine from 1990 to 2012, the state police were involved in 35 of them — more than any other agency. It’s hard not to conclude that the training gap played a part.

Today, 29 troopers are CIT-certified, which represents progress. So does state police chief Col. Robert Williams’ statement in an interview Friday that he wants to see a significant rise in the next few years in the number of CIT-trained troopers. Such top-down endorsement is important to trooper buy-in, given that the 40-hour training isn’t mandatory for troopers (or any Maine law enforcement officers).

Money is also an issue — sending a trooper to a week’s training can mean bringing a replacement in on overtime. That’s where the state must act. It should evaluate sites of department-wide CIT instruction and — if results support an expansion of state police training — authorize the extra funds needed to carry it out.

Because of deinstitutionalization and cuts in funding for mental health services, police are more likely than ever to encounter someone with a mental illness. So for the sake of the safety of law enforcement officers, the mentally ill and the community as a whole, we need to embrace an approach that allows more of these situations to be peacefully resolved.

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