How Spending a Week Training with Police Officers Changed Me

My Reflection On the Need to Unite the Police Departments and Communities in Preventing Further Tragedies Throughout the Country

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Over the past 9 months, I volunteered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Criminal Justice Diversion Project (CJDP). The focus is on preventing the unnecessary arrest, detention and incarceration of persons living with mental illness. This project aims to develop a statewide strategy to make high quality training on mental illness accessible to police departments in all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The ultimate goal is to put in place a sustainable approach to diverting individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system. Below is my reflection on the April 2015 Community Intervention Teams (CIT) training spearheaded by CJDP.
These were my highlights:
  •  Renewed hope in officers who took part in the training, the skills they gained, and their commitment to learning in order to better serve communities.
  • An opportunity to learn about the limitations, frustrations, and culture of police departments.
  • A sense of what policies must change for greater safety for officers and communities alike
  • An understanding of the unmet and significant mental health needs within police departments
    • i.e There’s a risk of losing their jobs if an officer reveals his/her own mental health struggles.
  • Uniting people with mental illness in the community with officers for an honest and open dialogue centered on our shared humanity

As a White woman with considerable privilege and absolutely no real danger, I began the week feeling truly unsafe in a room with armed male officers (there were 3-4 female-bodied officers present). Feeling tremendous despair about the recent deaths of individuals, as well as officers, I feared what I might discover at the training. Instead, I developed compassion and hope for the incredibly difficult work of police officers. I recognize that the sampling size might influence my positive impressions, but perhaps, this reflection will expand your perspective and help us find an end to the tragedies happening across our country.

Nothing will change until police officers and communities come together and listen to each other’s experiences, frustrations, and shared hopes for a world free from violence. For instance, at the training, one officer expressed frustrations that after she helps a person with mental illness get to the hospital, she she’s the same person on the street a few days later. The social worker at the training respond to this officer’s point of exasperation by providing context for the limitations of mental health treatment in our country. Few people stand by the impossibly short mental health treatments that hospitals and mental heath services currently provide: this must change if we are to halt the revolving doors of hospitals and more importantly, prisons where more people with mental illness end up (Read more about failures of the “de-institutionalization” of the mentally ill after the Community Mental Health Centers Act). We live in an era where the average psychiatric stay is about five days and most people who are psychotic never get a bed at all.

May we create more spaces that bring us together for conversations to open our hearts to each other’s suffering.

One component of the CIT Training was to introduce members of the community and their families and listen to their their experiences with mental illness and experiences with police departments. In small groups, individuals joined the police officers in sharing about their recovery and lives with mental illness. After, officers thanked the presenters and much to my surprise, they responded by sharing their own experiences with family members and major mental illness, as well as addiction. One officer turned to the presenter and asked, “What would you recommend I do for a family member who is in need of help but in complete denial about the seriousness of her symptoms?” The presenter responded by telling her to be their friend and listen. Additionally, anyone can contact the NAMI helpline at 800-370-9085 during the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm ET, Monday through Friday.

Read Julia Blount’s letter to her White Facebook friends. Remember, “Continue the conversation, ask questions, learn as much as you can, and choose to engage. Only by listening and engaging can we move forward.”

Watch this short documentary, Mental Illness on Trial, on the criminalization of mental illness.

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