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Bridging the Gap

The Memphis Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team is providing national leadership in dealing with the mentally ill

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On Monday night, November 26, 2001, around 9:15 p.m., five police officers responded to a call that would change their lives and how they thought about each other.

"The rain was coming down in sheets, a thunderstorm was peaking, and visibility was reduced to a few feet when dispatch got a call saying that a man was on the Hernando DeSoto bridge and appeared to be suicidal.

"Officer Corey Vann was the first to respond. As he pulled onto the bridge he saw a small black car on the side of the road. He said later that the hairs on the back of his neck raised and a chill went through him. 'It just didn't feel right,' he said.

"Getting soaked by the rain, Vann walked towards the car and tapped on the right rear window. The driver was sitting perfectly still in the front seat. He opened the window just enough to very calmly point a pistol at Vann. Vann immediately sought cover, drew his weapon, and called for backup.

"I was the first officer to arrive after Vann's call and was thinking it was just another baloney call, that probably somebody with a flat tire had been mistaken for a jumper on the bridge.

"Then I saw Officer Vann retreating towards me with his pistol drawn and knew this was real. 'What do you have, Vann? What's up with the gun?' I asked him. 'He's got a gun!' he yelled excitedly and through the heavy rain I could just barely see the weapon. About 30 yards away, the man held the pistol under his chin very calmly. The storm and the winds were causing the bridge to sway violently and I could feel my adrenaline kicking in."

The story comes from Memphis Police officer Robert J. Tutko. On that November night he "jumped the call," that is, he heard the radio dispatcher and decided to respond even though he specifically had not been summoned. As a member of the MPD's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), Tutko had dealt with such situations before. All CIT members -- there are about 210 in the department -- receive extensive training on how to confront the mentally ill and de-escalate volatile situations.

Memphis began the CIT program in 1988 after a mentally ill man was shot and killed the prior year by police officers when he approached them wielding a knife. The public outcry that resulted from the incident spurred then-Mayor Dick Hackett to form a community task force charged with reforming the procedures police used to deal with the mentally ill. Representatives from the police force, community activist groups, mental-health professionals, and academicians pooled their talents and resources and created the CIT. Memphis' program, called the "Memphis Model," is now the national model and has received extensive praise and recognition.

During the 40 hours of training CIT officers receive, they visit mental- health treatment facilities and meet with patients. Representatives from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and mental-health professionals donate their time to train the officers on everything from identifying someone who suffers from a mental illness to the words and tones of voice to use to calm the person.

"We show these officers that people with a mental illness are not all harmful," explains Major Sam Cochran, director of the Memphis CIT program. "They get to see the personal side of mental illness, and that makes the officers more understanding."

When the CIT program was implemented, the MPD also changed the temporary chain of command. On the scene of a call involving the mentally ill, the CIT officer is in charge, regardless of the rank of any other officers present. Officers say this cuts down on confusion at the scene and helps expedite the process.

But the process is seldom simple.

"By now, Officers Chester Striplin and Brad Wilburn had arrived, and I, as a Crisis Intervention officer, had charge of the scene. I told them to take positions behind us and block traffic coming onto the westbound side of the I-40 bridge. The Grizzlies game had just ended at The Pyramid and traffic was building. Officer Duane Dugger also arrived and took up a position behind his squad car. He drew his shotgun and aimed towards the man, who was still in his car.

"I yelled to Vann that I was going to run to his car and grab his PA to try to talk to the man. I asked Vann to cover me while I ran across the open area. Once I had the PA, I began to talk at the man. He wouldn't really talk to us. He just shook his head 'no' and made sure we saw the gun. We saw it.

"He became frustrated, I guess, and slowly started to drive forward. We all just looked at each other, astounded, and I said, 'Jump in your car, Vann. I'll drive mine towards him. Cover me.' I drove my car at a 45-degree angle with every light flashing and pointing in his direction."

CIT officers volunteer to join the program, but before they are accepted they undergo an interview process. Program coordinators use the interviews to determine if the officer is a good match for the CIT. Major Cochran explains that many of the current CIT officers have had some prior experience dealing with mental illness. He says that many of the officers even have friends and family who suffer from various mental illnesses.

"When the CIT officer gets the call they know that the 'consumer' [the term used to describe those receiving or in need of mental health treatment], his family, and the community are depending on them," says Cochran. "A lot of these officers have a personal commitment to helping this population."

Tutko doesn't have a family member with mental illness, but his background played heavily in his decision to join the CIT. Prior to becoming a police officer, he earned a Ph.D. and had a successful career as a radiology educator. He trained many of the radiologic technologists currently working in Memphis while he was director of the school of radiology at St. Joseph's Hospital and teaching classes at Baptist Minor Medical facilities. When St. Joseph's closed, Tutko found himself unemployed, and failing to find a radiology job in Memphis, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of being a police officer.

"My wife never wanted me to do police work because she thought it was too dangerous," says Tutko. "So when St. Joseph's closed and we lost everything, I looked at her and asked, 'Now can I be a police officer?' She said, 'Yes.'"

Three years later, at 46, he's hardly typical of the force. Most of his colleagues are between 21 and 25 years old and don't have his life experience.

"I'm a cop now; I'm one of them," he says. "I think sometimes that I should have done this 20 years earlier. But if I had, then I wouldn't have all the experience that I have and I wouldn't have as much to offer. I have a totally different life now."

"Vann yelled to me to get out my big gun. Some CIT officers have an SL-6, a weapon that looks like something out of Terminator 2. It's a 37-mm hard-baton launcher used to knock down an individual without killing him. I'm very good with it.

"I pulled it from its case in the trunk and loaded it. Now the guy got out of the car and was holding his pistol to his head and walking towards the edge of the bridge. Vann and I were shouting, 'You don't have to do this,' and the man actually pointed his gun towards Vann and me twice, but we didn't fire at him. He was screaming for us to shoot, adding to the macabre scene. I struggled to sight him with the SL-6 but was having a hard time seeing him in the torrential rain."

The SL-6 is an additional weapon available only to CIT officers who have received special training. It fires hard plastic batons designed to take a person out of commission without killing him. Officers are trained to set the gun's sight on the target's body

since a shot to the head could be fatal. The baton usually knocks the target down or out and the officer can gain control of the situation. Most officers say that they rarely have to fire the weapon. Once suspects see it they usually surrender.

In fact, CIT officers rarely use weapons at all. By utilizing the communication skills they've been taught, officers are usually able to convince the subject to voluntarily ride with the officer to the Regional Medical Center for treatment.

"In those situations the individuals are really struggling," says Cochran. "We train the officers to soften their voices, use short sentences, and repeat things again and again. The officers have to constantly assure these individuals that they are safe."

The benefits of this approach are twofold. It's a safer tactic for those suffering from mental illness. In other cities the mentally ill are often simply arrested, handcuffed, and placed in jail -- often receiving no treatment. Many times they commit the same offense again after they are released. But the CIT's kindler, gentler approach has benefits for the officers too.

"Three years prior to starting the CIT, the injury rate for officers was eight times higher on mental-illness calls than on regular calls. Today there is no difference between the injury rates," says Dr. Randolph Dupont, director for the Med's Psychiatric Service. Dupont helps train CIT officers and helps other cities implement the Memphis program.

Dupont says this lower incidence of officer injury is a top selling point for other cities looking to implement the Memphis Model.

"Normally, when you talk to police departments about taking a different approach with the mentally ill, they think, You're going to get me hurt," says Dupont. "But this program is supplemental, not a replacement. It provides a greater level of safety to the officer."

"I noticed Lt. Tim Canady behind me trying to stop the eastbound traffic coming from Arkansas. We all knew this scene was turning bad and that we might have to kill this guy to keep it from getting worse. Vann and I continued to yell at him not to do it but he swung one leg over the side of the bridge. Finally I zeroed in on him with the SL-6 sight. But I realized that if I hit him, he would fall off the bridge.

"Then he stepped back from the edge and started coming towards me. Vann said something that distracted him and he started to lean towards the ground. I took that brief instant to run towards him, jump over the concrete barrier, and take him to the ground.

"I kicked the gun and watched it slide off the bridge to the construction scaffold below. Handcuffing the man, I suddenly realized how hard the rain was actually coming down. The man was crying and saying, 'Why didn't you shoot? I wanted you to shoot.' The guys all rushed to help and Lt. Canady helped me get him to his feet.

"The man was shivering and crying and he was cold, so I took off my coat and wrapped it around him. Just minutes earlier we thought he was going to shoot us. Everyone let out a sigh of relief and worried about how we were going to retrieve the gun that I had kicked off the bridge.

"Knowing that I had to get this guy off the bridge and to the Med Psychiatric unit fast, I left and Lt. Canady escorted me. On the way, the man, a 27-year-old, told us his sad story. He had been abused since he was young; he came from a broken family and had experienced a lot of misfortune. He said he had heard of the 'suicide by cop' ploy and really hoped we would shoot him.

"I assured him he would be taken care of immediately when we arrived at the Med. Officer Dugger was still on the bridge. He saw the gun below and climbed down to recover it, probably cursing my name as he did.

"While I was at the Med with the man, filling out paperwork, I got a message from Dugger saying that the gun was a fake, a pellet gun that looked so real officers on the scene couldn't even tell when they held it in their hands."

Cochran, Dupont, and others all credit the cooperation between the various groups -- the police department, the Med, advocates, and treatment providers -- with the success of the Memphis Model.

"If you just have a police crisis response, that's not nearly enough," says Cochran. "You have to have the commitment of the entire community for it to work."

"I am convinced that the CIT in Memphis is the best in the nation," says Turner Hopkins, a member of the local NAMI chapter who got involved in the issue after a family member was diagnosed with a mental illness. "Instead of treating the mentally ill in hospitals, much of the nation is still warehousing them in jails."

Cochran also says that because of the Med's cooperation, an officer can be back on the streets in as few as 15 minutes after surrendering a mentally ill person to the Med's care. In cities using other approaches, the officers often have to wait several hours before returning to the streets.

Cochran and Dupont receive requests almost daily from police departments in other cities interested in implementing the Memphis Model. According to Dupont, almost 40 cities have or soon will have adopted the CIT program, including Albuquerque, Seattle, San Jose, Minneapolis, Houston, Orlando, Akron, Toledo, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, Louisville, Roanoke, Spokane, and Portland, Oregon. Programs will also be fully implemented in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, Oklahoma City, Anchorage, Portland, Maine, and Tucson. Already in 2002 Cochran and Dupont have received requests for information from police departments in Los Angeles and Queensland, Australia.

"This story could have had tragic consequences but the men on that bridge that night made the right decisions, followed the orders given, and it ended with no one hurt. We all met the next night with a critical- incident debriefing team. It was a tremendous session and I know we all were better for it.

"This is a story where everyone goes home and no one was shot or killed. Maybe not what the media usually jumps on, but I thought you might want to hear it."

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