Time to Talk

Officers learn how to de-escalate situations involving mental illness

Program, considered best in industry, being used by county, city agencies

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The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Parker, Lone Tree and Castle Rock police departments are in the process of putting all their officers and dispatchers through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, an internationally recognized program that teaches how to recognize and build rapport with a person experiencing mental illness.

Eighty percent of the Parker Police Department has completed the training, and 68 percent of Castle Rock officers and 82 percent of Lone Tree officers have done so. In the sheriff’s office, 50 percent of deputies are trained in CIT.

“It’s really advanced training for police officers that didn’t exist 30 years ago,” Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley said.

Founded by the Memphis Police Department in 1988, the 40-hour course is considered the leading program in policing the mentally ill. Through the training, panels of people with mental health conditions explain what it’s like to be in psychosis. Professional actors provide role-playing exercises, so officers can practice de-escalation techniques. The focus is on communication and avoiding the use of force.

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“The goal is to train officers that folks with mental health issues are much more than mental health people,” said Dara Rampersad, a CIT expert who has served on the program’s international board of directors. “They have full lives.”

Douglas County police chiefs agree the CIT program offers crucial mental health training to law enforcement. But some law enforcement officials don’t necessarily think every officer in an agency should have it.

Jeff Santelli, a retired Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputy who now works as a CIT trainer, suggested that CIT should be a specialized presence in law enforcement, likening it to SWAT teams.

Just like SWAT officers, CIT officers require a specific skillset, Santelli said.

“It’s actually a very similar analogy to CIT,” he said. “It’s a specialized training of communication and not everybody is the best communicator.”

Santelli also cautioned not all agencies can afford CIT training, the cost of which depends on various factors.

The price can run from $6,000 to $25,000, Santelli said. Some agencies itemize the expense in their budgets; others pursue grants. And some, such as Douglas County, which pays for the program with booking fees from the jail, find creative funding avenues.

But agencies may consider the program worth the expense: Studies show CIT is effective at reducing use of force — in some departments bringing it lower than 5 percent — and preventing negative outcomes that could result otherwise, Santelli and Rampersad said.

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