Last evening I attended a meeting that focused on the Crisis Intervention Training program that is intended as a supplemental training for police officers of Portland, Oregon. The roots of this program go back to the mid 1990's but it was the tragic death of Jim Chasse who was in custody of police officers that was the reason that the city of Portland moved to make the training mandatory for police officers.
Crisis Intervention, as a program of training, started in Memphis Tennessee as the response to another tragic situation and was conceived as a voluntary, not mandatory set of skills. The idea was that not all people are of a psychological makeup to integrate and use the skills taught in the program. While the voluntary idea may have some merit, the larger view of society, behavioral problems and the role of police forces could use some examination to help put the training in a proper context.
It is useful to study what societal decisions we have made that get us to the point where we now struggle with mental health problems and understand why those decisions brought us to our present state of affairs. In this case we are at the confluence of mental illness, care for those mental diseases and the maintenance of order in our society.
In the mid-1950's common societal practice was to place those suffering from severe mental disease away from everyday society in mental institutions commonly called asylums. More than half a million people in our country were removed from everyday life and subject to often terrifying conditions of asylums. While originally conceived as separate and compassionate respite homes designed to reduce stressful demands, they had more often deteriorated into overcrowded, decrepit warehouses stuffed with a variety of residents that were a jumble of persons with mismatched and differing behavioral problems.
Because these institutions were very expensive to operate and staff it was a great financial drain on governments to provide proper funding for the residents of the facilities. Because the conditions were poor and because some advances in medications showed promise in treating the diseases and because governments were very interested in saving money, public policy shifted and started a massive closure of the facilities and removal of people with mental disease from institutions and back into the communities. All of this was done in a very rapid manner with only the general promise of the creation of the Community Mental Health system.
Like most promises of Government, the promise was only good until requested to be funded. In true American style, we demand services and refuse to pay for them. In this case, there was a need for about fifteen hundred community mental health facilities and only about seven hundred and fifty were funded. On the expense savings side, however, government was extraordinarily effective and reduced the number of residents in the asylums by 90 percent in a few short years.
What, you might ask, is the result of this massive policy shift? We created a massive homeless class that wanders our streets, ill but untreated, begging for resources that are too few in number. Meanwhile the Federal Government, in order to keep states from just recreating large residential treatment centers, passed a restriction of funding any treatment facility with more that 16 residents. This effectively keeps anyone from gathering large numbers of mentally ill persons in large scale treatment institutions. It did not, however, keep them from being collected elsewhere.
Like all well-intended programs and laws, these actions did not, as hoped, have anything like the desired effect. While a small number of persons were returned to their communities and were successfully reintegrated, those with severe symptoms and very difficult behavioral problems "fell through the cracks" as the expression goes and everyone ends up somewhere. Some simply died. Recent statics on the lifespan of those with severe mental illness suggests that their lifespan is nearly 25 years shorter than their fellow citizens. Some also were helped by newer medications and supportive families. After all, having a social safety net is really great for everyone if those who gave birth to those with illness are put into the position of providing as much of the burden of care as possible.
Many of the rest simply over time were transferred to the care and custody of a different governmental organization. Where might you ask did they go? Look no further that our jails and prisons. The massive increase in prison populations in America coincides with the emptying of asylums.
Few things are more popular with voters that "getting tough on crime." Americans love to put people behind bars and keep the "bad" people away from them. We spend massive amounts on alarms and security, locks and deadbolts, guns to protect ourselves and any other manner of self-protection. We love making mandatory sentences, television shows about "bad guys" and thinking up new laws about how to punish people. We look for our police forces to protect us and control the streets and any incident that brings us harm has us begging for more protection and locking up more people.
The problem with all of this is we simply transferred the populations that once inhabited asylums in terrible conditions into jail cells and asked our police forces to be the front lines in the management of mental health disorders.
Our police forces are now stuck with a responsibility that was never intended, treating medical conditions with guns and weapons. We are asking officers to do the impossible, control mental disorders with techniques that were designed to control people who's intent was to rob or steal for personal gain. This is the heart of the problem. Those who are in mental crisis are not acting out of the same reasons of behavior as those intending to simply steal from or harm another. As a society, we have mixed into the mess on the streets behaviors that are caused by physical and chemical abnormalities of the brain and asked the police to adapt to the situation without proper training. Asking the police to separate mental illness and criminality and make split second judgements regarding their own safety is like looking for a gasoline can in a dark garage with a lighted match. We are creating an explosive situation. We are also, if you look at the situations that pepper our news stories, doing very poorly.
The answer lies not in more police training, although that is also part of the solution, but in creation of a workable mental health treatment system. Perhaps we will as a society someday find a better more humane and intelligent care system. Until then, far too many will find the police departments as their first line of treatment and far too many will have given their lives while we clumsily search for better answers.
Crisis intervention Training is commendable. It is life-changing. It life-saving. It is not, however, a solution. The real solution is the study and treatment of mental disease and finding a way to treat and care for those who suffer its ravages. Until we find cures and effective treatments, we are asking police to do what we have not done as a society. We are asking for the impossible.