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Crisis intervention team renews commitment to mentally ill

December 29, 2018

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — The Pine Belt Crisis Intervention Team has been working the last few years to identify and help individuals in crisis rather than take them to jail when an episode occurs.

The city of Hattiesburg recently renewed its commitment to continue the effort, which allows law enforcement officers to defuse a situation that could escalate into violence and to assist those in need.

The Hattiesburg Police Department has 17 officers trained for crisis intervention, said Lt. Latosha Myers-Mitchell. That means at least one CIT officer is available on every shift.

The officers are equipped to understand the nuances of mental illness and recognize when someone is in crisis so they can handle a situation appropriately.

One dispatcher is trained as well, and plans are in the works to get training for dispatch supervisors, Myers-Mitchell said.

The Pine Belt Crisis Intervention Team includes Hattiesburg and Petal police departments, Forrest County Sheriff’s Department, Forrest General Hospital Division of Public Safety, Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources and the National Alliance for Mental Illness-Pine Belt.

Other area agencies that have officers trained in crisis intervention include Lamar and Jones County Sheriff’s departments and Ellisville police.

CIT program director Linda Foley said in an earlier story that the team helps fill the gaps between mental health and criminal justice, so it became a priority last fall when the needs of the mentally ill were discussed in a meeting of area leaders and officials working in criminal justice and mental health.

“First of all, you reduce the population in jail, where they don’t know how to take care of mental illness,” she said. “It reduces officer injury and injury to the public. It gets people into treatment.”

The program first was implemented in Jones County a couple of years ago, Foley said, with results that have proven beneficial.

Jones County Sheriff’s Department was the first in the area to implement a CIT program.

“Since we started it in Jones County, the psychiatric emergency room visits have been reduced by half,” Foley said.

In 2010, Mayor Toby Barker, a former state representative, was part of the legislative team that created a means for local law enforcement agencies to train officers and work with other agencies to help people in crisis.

“Back then, it was something relatively new that we were trying to bring to the state of Mississippi,” he said.

Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, a mental health proponent, was the primary author of House Bill 1049.

“To work on that bill in 2010 and see how far our area has come over in the past eight years, it’s truly remarkable,” Barker said. “We know we have a long way to go, but I think one thing our city has taken the lead on is trying to be forward thinking when it comes to treating people with mental illness.

“You see that not only with our embrace of the Crisis Intervention Team program, but with our embrace of the Municipal Court’s Behavioral Health Court program and the vast amount of resources we have with Pine Belt Mental Health right here in our city.”

The law defines a crisis intervention team as a community partnership among law enforcement agencies, a community mental health center, hospital or other mental health providers and affected individuals and their family members. Each party works with the others to provide the best possible options.

The law also says “any law enforcement agency or community mental health center, as a participating partner, is authorized to establish crisis intervention teams to provide for psychiatric emergency services and triage and referral services for persons who are with substantial likelihood of bodily harm as a more humane alternative to confinement in a jail.”

“It gives us the option to get (most) people in crisis where they need to be, and jail is not that place,” Myers-Mitchell said.

She said there are times when a person needs to be taken to jail, for instance if they have committed a serious crime or caused harm to a person when having an episode.

“But for the most part, what CIT is designed to do is de-escalate on scene and to get the consumers the help they need,” Myers-Mitchell said.

“It keeps our officers safer,” Barker said. “It keeps the individuals in mental illness safer and it keeps our entire community safer.”

Myers-Mitchell said calling people in crisis “consumers” helps everyone understand they are people who have a need.

“It gives them the idea they are not a victim or a patient or a criminal,” she said. “They are in need of a service. I have seen officers be more compassionate, more understanding and more tolerant of people that are in crisis.”

In addition to the agreement to work together, the Pine Belt CIT partners also will:

—Emphasize treatment rather than incarceration of people with mental illness.

—Decrease the proportion of people with mental illness in the Forrest County Jail.

—Improve the turnaround time for CIT officers at the single point of entry.

—Decrease officer injury rates.

—Decrease injury rates to persons experiencing a mental health crisis requiring law enforcement involvement.

—Increase public awareness of mental health issues to decrease stigma.

—Cultivate positive relationships among law enforcement, community service providers, mental health consumers and their families, and the general community.

—Participate in the evaluation of Pine Belt CIT goals and outcomes.

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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