By Michael Mayo
The question was simple: What are some names we call people with mental illness?
The cops in the classroom laughed nervously before answering: nut job, bananas, schizo, psycho, cuckoo, wacko, whackadoodle, Signal 20, crazy, loco, insane, batty, fruitcake.
“And what are some names we use for people who have cancer?” the instructor asked.
“That would be mean,” said one woman, a Broward Sheriff’s deputy.
So began a 40-hour training session for the latest crop of South Florida police officers who now wear a pin with the letters “C.I.T.” on their uniforms. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Team, and the intense, weeklong course serves as a sort of boot camp for cops when it comes to handling — and defusing — situations where mental health comes into play.
Police officers aren’t doctors or therapists, but they are often thrust into being first-responders for those in crisis with mental illness.
And in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, like many places around the country, the biggest mental-health provider isn’t a hospital or clinic. It’s the local jails.
The 22 officers came to a classroom at Broward’s police academy in Davie earlier this year to get healthy doses of education and sensitivity. I came because mental health is a huge issue that’s too easily ignored and stigmatized, even though it cuts across every layer of society. One in four Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point in their lives — depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, schizophrenia.
If you’re having a heart attack, you can call 911 for an ambulance, and paramedics will rush you to the hospital for medical treatment.
But if you have a disease of the mind and exhibit bizarre or dangerous behavior at home or in public, it’s usually the police who must sort out what to do. Depending on the circumstances, you might get help or you might end up behind bars — or worse.
A 911 call could bring a compassionate officer who has been through CIT training and knows about de-escalation techniques, or a hard-edged officer who might arrest — or shoot — a subject who doesn’t quickly obey commands.
“We get 600-something hours of training in the police academy, but it doesn’t cover 80 percent of your job — dealing with people,” Sgt. Jaime Costas of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department told the group.
I have plenty of personal experience with mental illness: My late brother, David, had schizophrenia and spent most of his adult life in a New York psychiatric hospital. But I wanted to take a closer look at the current situation here in South Florida, where there’s a huge dichotomy.
On the one hand, Florida’s per-capita funding for mental health and substance abuse programs consistently ranks near the bottom for all states. State hospitals that provide long-term care for the worst cases are practically extinct.
Yet South Florida has been home to trend-setting innovation and exceptionally caring advocates. Broward was among the first places nationally to institute mental-health courts to divert misdemeanor and nonviolent offenders from the criminal justice system.
Judges like Ginger Lerner-Wren and Mark Speiser in Broward and Steve Leifman in Miami-Dade, and Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, keep pushing for treatment programs instead of incarceration. Police veterans like Costas and BSO Capt. Scott Russell, a big man with a bigger heart, have been instrumental in developing homeless outreach programs and expanding CIT training.
Russell, an ordained minister and former Fort Lauderdale police offficer, was lured out of retirement last year by Broward Sheriff Scott Israel. Russell hopes to increase CIT classes to 10 times a year, up from quarterly the past few years.
“The success of an agency is not measured by the number of people arrested, but the number of problems solved,” Russell said. “We’re trying to make arrest the last choice.”
The CIT program started in Memphis in the 1980s after police shot and killed a mentally ill suspect. The first CIT training in Broward was offered in 2002. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office started its CIT program in 2007. More than 1,000 deputies and officers from various agencies have gone through the local courses, but that’s only a small fraction of local police forces.
The training week included primers from experts on mental illness, substance abuse, Florida’s laws on involuntary commitment and treatment (the Baker Act and the Marchman Act), psychotropic medications and their side effects. There were seminars on the homeless, the elderly, veterans and those with developmental disabilities. There were site visits to hospitals and crisis units, rehab and counseling centers, and a homeless shelter.