Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Crisis Intervention Team International Conference
Chicago, IL
United States
Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thank you, Mark [Munetz], for that kind introduction – and for your strong leadership, creative thinking and outstanding work in the field of crisis intervention.  I also want to thank Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) International for hosting this energizing and inspiring convening.  And I want to thank all of you – the dedicated law enforcement leaders, advocates, behavioral health practitioners, researchers and community members here today – for your commitment to ensuring that we treat those with mental illness and substance use disorders with the care and respect they deserve.  This conference presents a key opportunity to share and advance best practices among CIT programs.  It also provides a chance to reaffirm our core values.  We believe in treating those in crisis – our loved ones; our neighbors; our colleagues; and our friends – with compassion, decency and dignity.  We believe that mutual trust builds mutual respect.  And we believe that with a collaborative, coordinated and team-driven model, we can make policing safer for officers and civilians alike.

Nearly three decades ago in Memphis, Tennessee, the fatal police shooting of Joseph Dewayne Robinson highlighted the urgent need to reform the law enforcement response to people with mental illness.  It led the Memphis Police Department – in partnership with some of the organizations here today – to develop a new CIT program.  Over the years, from that program grew a new approach – with new strategies and tactics – to respond to calls involving people in crisis.  And in part because of the robust education, outreach and research from CIT International, today this approach extends to communities across our country.

Our discussion comes at a time of great challenge, but also real opportunity in a robust national conversation about community-police relations.  Tragic deaths, including of unarmed black youth and people in crisis, at the hands of police; ambushes and assassinations of officers; and widespread community mobilization have brought policing issues from the periphery to the center of our public dialogue.  As we discuss these issues, I want to focus our conversation around this question: how can we seize this moment of widespread engagement to build a framework for real reform that makes our communities and our officers safer for generations to come?

Let me make one point clear from the start.  Officers have difficult, demanding – and, at times, very dangerous – jobs.  The overwhelming majority perform their jobs with honor, pride and distinction.  They deserve immense praise for fighting crime on our streets and keeping our families safe from harm.  And as we discuss our efforts to improve how law enforcement interact with people in crisis, we must not forget that officers in the field need more support.  The stress and trauma of these jobs can take a heavy toll.  Access to counseling and other support can help improve officer wellness.  And supporting officer wellness can promote appropriate officer-community interactions on the street.

Each day, officers serve as first responders for people in crisis.  They respond to calls from people struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders and anger management – all social and health problems they never envisioned consuming so much of their time.  For too long, our society has failed to adequately invest in behavioral health treatment programs.  Instead, we’ve turned to the criminal justice system, relying on arrest and incarceration, to jail – rather than treat – those in crisis.  For too long, and for a range of reasons – from stigma, to misinformation, to neglect – we’ve failed to properly care for the most vulnerable among us.  And for too long, we’ve pretended that criminalizing mental illness would somehow solve the issue.

As a society, we share a collective responsibility to reverse this trend by expanding diversion programs and by investing in community-based mental health care.  Yet even as we advance these critical community programs and services, in some situations, inevitably law enforcement officers will continue to serve as the first responders for people in crisis.  So we owe it to officers to ensure they get the training, tools and resources they need to recognize challenges like mental health conditions and substance use disorders – and respond appropriately.  And when they do respond to crisis situations on the front lines, using a community-centered, evidence-driven program like the CIT model can help save lives.

Each year, too many people with mental illness lose their lives at the hands of police.  According to The Washington Post, last year in the United States, police fatally shot 990 people – and in roughly 25 percent of these shootings, “mental illness played a role.”  While no approach or model can prevent every tragedy, we know that crisis intervention models, when combined with de-escalation tactics, can increase the likelihood of safe outcomes in potentially dangerous situations.

The Justice Department invests substantial resources to support state and local law enforcement agencies around the country.  We aim to advance effective policing, to ensure officer and public safety and to bolster trust in police-community relations.  A key part of our efforts in the Civil Rights Division involves working to reform local law enforcement agencies engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, including the use of excessive force.  The agreements that arise from these cases – court-enforceable, independently-monitored consent decrees – hold the potential to serve as models for reform around the country.  Combined with the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the work of our Community Oriented Policing Services Office’s Collaborative Reform Initiative, these consent decrees can help police departments and communities initiate dialogue, conduct self-review and undertake meaningful reform before a critical incident occurs and before the Justice Department intervenes.

Of course, each community faces unique challenges that require customized solutions.  But through our more than two decades of work in this field – and engagement with law enforcement, communities and policing experts within and outside the profession – we have come to believe in a series of principles and practices that law enforcement agencies can employ.  These principles are reflected in our agreements around the country, including in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cleveland; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Ferguson, Missouri.  We believe that these principles and tactics can help officers avoid excessive and unnecessary force – including tragedies that can tear a community apart – while ensuring officer and public safety.  Today, I want to focus on our approach in two specific areas – crisis intervention and de-escalation – as well as explain how these models fit into a broader approach to community policing.

This approach begins by declaring an unwavering commitment to protecting human life and upholding the dignity of all individuals.  To advance that mission, we aim to ensure that police departments implement a crisis intervention program.  Crisis intervention means recognizing when an individual may be impacted by mental illness, a medical condition, the effects of drugs or alcohol or another disorienting or debilitating condition.  It means understanding that a person may not understand commands or be able to comply with them.  And it means responding with care and communication to defuse tensions rather than resorting to unnecessary force.

Such an approach should include the following commitments: provide basic crisis intervention training to all officers.  Administer robust, specialized crisis intervention training – at least 40 hours – for qualified and eligible officers that covers field evaluation, suicide intervention, community mental health resources, crisis de-escalation and scenario-based exercises.  Ensure that dispatchers also receive crisis intervention training and can identify when calls may involve individuals in crisis.  Dispatch specialized CIT officers to respond to crisis-related calls.  Track detailed outcome data on the response to crisis calls.  And analyze that data to inform training programs, reward successful officer performance, identify systemic issues and coordinate the delivery of services with mental health providers.

In the coming months, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) plans to publish a new customizable 40-hour national CIT curriculum that local jurisdictions can use to build their own CIT programs.  And soon BJA will also launch a specialized response toolkit for law enforcement and behavioral health practitioners.

Our approach to crisis intervention also emphasizes the need for partnerships among law enforcement, mental health professionals and community members.  As part of our consent decrees in Portland, Seattle and Cleveland, for example, these cities and their police departments created advisory committees specifically focused on substance use, mental health and crisis intervention.  These committees include CIT officers, other law enforcement personnel, service providers and community members.  The committees help the police departments shape their crisis intervention systems, policies and staffing.  And these partnerships also help people with mental illness and substance use disorders receive treatment from community-based services, rather than get stuck in the criminal justice system.

Combined with effective, accountable and transparent civilian oversight measures, these efforts ensure that people feel included in, invested in and confident in the community’s collective response to mental illness and substance use disorders.  People living with these conditions must feel welcome, embraced and supported – not stigmatized and stuck in the shadows.  We cannot truly treat mental illness and substance use disorders if we don’t listen to the people it impacts directly.  Community policing requires bringing the entire community together to solve its most complex and pressing problems.  And a community approach to crisis intervention exemplifies that model in action.  When officers know the people and the community they serve, it makes us all safer.

Of course, no program, including crisis intervention, can ever eliminate the fact that sometimes – as justified by legal standards – officers may need to use force to protect officer and public safety.  As officers face an endless variety of situations, including sometimes dangerous conditions and contexts, week-in and week-out, they need additional guidance to understand how Graham v. Connor’s legal standard of “objective reasonableness” relates to practical decisions about when or how to apply force – decisions like whether to wait, strike or fire.  Clear policies, robust training and effective supervision can provide necessary guidance.  Effective police departments help officers translate the legal standard from Graham by ensuring that they receive proper training and instructions about what it means to use objectively reasonable force.  And these departments train officers to exercise their power and discretion lawfully, safely and responsibly.

Through our consent decrees, we aim to ensure that police departments adopt and apply many of these de-escalation and use-of-force principles: use force only to accomplish a legitimate public safety objective.  Use de-escalation techniques to minimize the need for force and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance.  Use force in a manner that avoids unnecessary injury to officers and civilians.  Never use force to punish a person, or to retaliate against criticism.  And when officers do use force, they should immediately render necessary medical care.  Following the use of force, police departments must ensure accurate reporting, adequate investigation – and in appropriate cases – discipline and/or referral to prosecuting authorities.  From guiding principles to specific rules, de-escalation embodies a critical approach for officer and community safety.  By buying time, creating distance, keeping space and calling for back up, officers can expand their options.

By focusing on the themes of de-escalation and crisis intervention in our consent decrees, we are seeing signs of success.  In Seattle – following the police department’s implementation of new crisis intervention policies, training and operations required in our consent decree – a federal monitor examining a three-month period found that officers used force in only 2 percent of roughly 2,500 encounters with individuals in crisis.  And in Detroit, after about a decade with the police department under a consent decree, we found improved training and revised use-of-force policies helped lead to a nearly 60 percent decline in the average number of officer-involved shootings per year.

In Portland, where we found a pattern of excessive force against people with mental illness, the Portland Police Bureau agreed to implement new training and accountability measures and create an Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team.  A 2013 local media story highlights the powerful impact of these efforts.  Officers responded to a call about a naked man, possibly armed with a knife and threatening to jump off a parking garage.  As the officers – including a member of the police department’s CIT – responded to the scene, they found a man cutting himself with a knife and in a mental health crisis.  Rather than use force, the CIT officer started talking to the man and soon realized that he wanted food.  So another officer went and got him a sandwich.  The officers then talked the man off the ledge and placed him into custody.

Of course – as I mentioned earlier – no matter how successfully and effectively law enforcement officers respond to crisis situations, we cannot afford to leave them addressing public health crises like mental illness and substance use disorders on their own.  These challenges extend far beyond policing.  When it comes to mental illness and substance use disorders, we cannot police, arrest or incarcerate our way to solutions.  You cannot treat illness with incarceration.  Unfortunately, we all know that today, people with serious mental illness are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.   And once incarcerated, inmates with severe mental illness are likely to spend more time behind bars than those who don’t struggle with these issues.

Only a comprehensive approach that includes investment in community-based mental health care can drive real reform.  Already within the Civil Rights Division, we’re working on strategies to incorporate sustainable solutions to systemic criminal justice problems – including problems of unlawful policing and over-incarceration – into our consent decrees.  By helping people in need of behavioral health services access community-based treatment, we plan to reform harmful policies and practices that end up trapping the most vulnerable members of our society in a perpetual cycle of arrest and incarceration.

Under the leadership of the Attorney General [Loretta E. Lynch] and Deputy Attorney General [Sally Q. Yates], the Justice Department has also launched a new initiative to examine the interaction between mental health and the criminal justice system.  And a key part of this effort focuses on diverting people to community-based treatment rather than locking them up in jail.  Specialized problem-solving courts – such as mental health courts – show promising signs of success.  They help replace incarceration with treatment.  They bring mental health providers and public officials together to build community-justice partnerships.  And research shows that mental health courts can help prevent future crimes by reducing recidivism.

To advance this approach to diversion, in the coming months, the Justice Department plans to provide law enforcement and health care systems with additional tools, resources and guidance about how to treat justice-involved individuals with mental health conditions.  Specifically, we hope to help the field better understand how the Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable modifications and community-based services for those with mental health conditions and intellectual disabilities.  When criminal justice personnel get the training and guidance they need to fulfill their legal responsibilities, and when communities provide community-based mental health services that people can be diverted to, it makes all of us safer.  It promotes public welfare.  It builds community trust.  It respects the rights of people with disabilities.  And it ensures the prudent and effective use of our limited criminal justice resources.

Advancing meaningful reform in criminal justice won’t happen overnight.  And change won’t come easily.  I see these challenges clearly.  But today, I also see a national conversation filled with energy and momentum to address these complex issues.  I see collaborative partnerships advancing cutting-edge best practices.  And I see a common vision.  Whether officers or chiefs; whether advocates or academics; and whether prosecutors or private citizens – we want to reduce deadly encounters.  We want to keep families whole.  We want to respect human dignity.  We want to support and strengthen officer safety.  And we want to rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve.

So today, let us leave this conference energized with not only proven models, but also new tactics to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society: those living with disabilities, those living with mental illness and those struggling with substance use disorders.  Let us commit to solving tough problems and strengthening community partnerships.  Let us advance policies and paradigms guided by compassion and human dignity.  And let us work together to build safe, supportive and inclusive communities for all.

Civil Rights
Updated August 19, 2016