Central Illinois Police Training for Mental Health Cases Questioned — Print Version

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Tisha Bryson at her home in central Illinois on Saturday, June 4, 2022. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Tisha Bryson has been shackled, hospitalized, and shoved to the ground by Champaign-area police while experiencing a mental health crisis more times than she can count.

“I try not to hold grudges,” said Bryson, of Hammond. “But some of the ways I was treated were very traumatizing.”

Bryson’s case also surfaces a regular criticism: that police are not adequately trained to respond to mental health crises and often respond with punitive measures.

About 60 percent of the state’s law enforcement agencies have had an officer go through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. However, while research shows CIT training is perceived positively by officers, there is little evidence supporting the idea that it decreases arrests, officer or citizen injury, use of force, or lethality.

Crisis response data from the Champaign police from 2017 to 2020, for example, show the majority of mental health emergencies led to involuntary admissions, but the data did not indicate how many of the admissions were initiated by police, and how many were initiated by others. About half of the responding officers were not trained in crisis intervention.

CIT training is not the only solution, expert Ira Burnim said. “CIT is for the police, and you want to have options other than the police.”

The Champaign crisis data also indicate some kind of force is used by officers in about one in every ten police responses to mental health crises.

Bryson was 18 when she had what she refers to as her first psychotic breakdown. Her family reacted as many would—they called 911.

Since then Bryson, now 34, has had numerous negative interactions with officers. Many of these instances occurred while Bryson says she was in a state of psychosis.

Atwood Police Chief Robert Bross transported her to the jail after she entered a family’s home and picked up their young daughter, thinking it was her own child, and she was charged with aggravated kidnapping and criminal trespassing. Bross declined a request to comment.

“That was the worst psychotic episode I had ever been in,” Bryson said. “Jail was not where I needed to be.”

One in four people with mental illness have histories of police arrest, and about one in ten have interactions with police prior to receiving mental health services, according to research.

People with mental illnesses face disproportionate levels of police violence. One study shows people with serious mental illness experience police use of force at 11.6 times the rate of those without mental illness. These rates vary significantly based on race and other demographic factors. Among those who experience a mental health crisis, Black people are three times more likely to have police force used against them than white people.

Some mental health cases in Champaign appeared to result in the use of force. About 9 percent of Champaign use-of-force incidents between 2017 and 2020 have a matching report number to a separate database of mental health cases. The department did not respond to requests to verify this analysis of its data.

In the city’s best-known case, officers approached Richard Turner, a 54-year-old Black man who had a history of mental health issues and was experiencing homelessness.

Turner, who was well-known to Champaign police, had been observed that morning seemingly out of sorts. After trying to talk to him, the officers, one of whom was still in training, decided to send him to a hospital for treatment. After he began to run, two officers pinned him to the ground—one placed his knee on Turner’s shoulder—and handcuffed him as he resisted. The officers then secured a strap called a hobble around his ankles. His sister argued in court records that he was struggling “because he was likely having difficulty breathing.”

The officers—one of whom, in addition to a sergeant on scene, had received CIT training—determined that Turner had stopped breathing. Paramedics arrived but were unable to revive him. The officers were cleared of criminal and administrative wrongdoing, and the lawsuit was dismissed. However, the case has served as a rallying point for advocates of police reform in the years since.

Turner’s death occurred as officers were trying to involuntarily commit him, which is becoming increasingly common. Between 2011 and 2018, national instances of involuntary detention increased by 13 percent, while the average population only increased by 4 percent, according to research.

Nearly 60 percent of clients who received inpatient mental health services were involuntarily admitted for care, research has found. This research does not specify what percentage of admissions were initiated by police.

“There are costs to overusing involuntary hospitalization,” Burnim said. “The cost I’m more concerned about is that coercion does not feel good [to patients].” There are a “substantial number of people” whose experiences of involuntary treatment discourage further use of the mental health system altogether.

The majority of mental health emergencies handled by the Champaign police led to petitions for involuntary admission. Over 52 percent of Champaign police crisis intervention cases between 2017 and 2021 resulted in petitions for involuntary admission, though the data do not make clear who the initiating party is.

Over 40 percent of the department’s reported mental health crisis intervention incidents involved Black residents, despite the city’s population being only 18 percent Black.

One factor contributing to this disparity, expert Marvin Swartz said, is that people of color are far less likely to have health insurance.

“If you’re Black and poor and uninsured, your introduction to any service is likely via [the] emergency room, and then more likely via involuntary care,” he said.

Bryson has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities about 30 times. Though most of her hospitalizations were with her consent, one experience of police-initiated involuntary hospitalization in 2015 stands out, during which she lost custody of her daughter. “This really just ruined my life,” Bryson said. “I lost the chance to raise my daughter. And it all started with an officer at my door not understanding I was sick.”

The Illinois General Assembly passed the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act – CESSA) last August. CESSA requires emergency operators to refer mental and behavioral health-related calls to a line that connects the caller to a team of mental health professionals.

Illinois is also implementing a federally mandated 988 hotline, ​​a national three-digit phone number for individuals experiencing mental health crises. Both will roll out statewide by 2023.

However, some experts have criticized co-responder models as being “band-aid” solutions that don’t account for the needs of people in crisis after their crisis has ended. Researchers have also warned that implementing new emergency numbers without sufficient funding can backfire.

Going forward, Bryson hopes to continue shedding light on issues related to mental illness. Her advice to those responding to emergencies: “Always keep in mind that anybody could be going through a mental health crisis.”

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance or resources, you can contact a volunteer crisis counselor through crisistextline.org. If you are in Champaign County or other parts of Central Illinois, you can call 2-1-1 or find alternative numbers for community resources at unitedwayillinois.org/211-2. You can also contact the Rosecrance Local Crisis Line at 217-359-4141. Please be aware that some services may contact police, even if it’s against your wishes, if they believe the situation warrants it. You can find additional local resources here.

This is an excerpt, lightly edited for style, from an investigation published in the December 2022 print version of the Public i, and by the Invisible Institute and CU-CitizenAccess, supported by the Data-Driven Reporting Project. Find the full story here, or at cucitizenaccess.org or illinoisnewsroom.org.

Kelsey Turner is a recent Medill School of Journalism graduate whose writing focuses on social justice issues facing minority communities. She worked on this story as a graduate intern with the Invisible Institute. Kelsey has written for a number of publications and now reports on affordable housing and homelessness for The Columbian, a local newspaper in Vancouver, Washington.

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