Policing mental illness

(WAVY file)

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – The United States policy enacted nearly 60 years ago that moved mentally ill people out of state institutions and into the community for treatment has long had mixed reviews.

However, the fall out is now being felt across the country. It’s a national crisis that is leaving a growing burden on our community.

“It is a stressful and a very tense situation and they have moments only moments and seconds to gauge whether or not that person is a threat to them or a threat to themselves,” Norfolk-based trial attorney Stephanie Bolen said.

Bolen represents two families who’ve had loved ones with diagnosed mental illness killed by police in Hampton Roads. She calls what has become the policing of the mentally ill a problem.

“You’re talking about families who are affected, not just someone who is being defiant purposely. They have a mental health illness,” she said.

Calling for help for someone in a mental health crisis

Helping someone having a psychiatric crisis

An analysis done by the Washington Post last year uncovered of the nearly one thousand police shooting deaths across the country, nearly 30 percent of the victims had a mental illness.

“It’s just not seen as a priority,” Mira Singer Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said.

Singer says the predominate way of thinking many years ago was that people diagnosed with a mental illness should be in an institution.

However, the widespread release has led to consequences.

10 On Your Side uncovered a New York Times article published in 1984 that calls the release of mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community a failure.

“It’s a very good theory but you have to have the tangible services and the funding and the resources and the staffing, and unfortunately what happened was that push towards deinstitutionalization became a money saver,” Singer said.

It’s a savings that’s now costing taxpayers. Advocates believe limited resources are straining an already imperfect system.

Police now not only handle public safety, they have become community caretakers. In some cases they are first to be called in a mental health emergency.

“It’s the ultimate tragedy because something probably could have been done before it got to that point,” Singer said.

“We don’t necessarily want it but we accept the responsibility to do this because it’s part of the job,” Virginia Beach Police Lt. Johnny Gandy said.

Lt. Gandy is a 29-year veteran officer. He admits sometimes police have gotten it wrong.

“In the past we haven’t really done a good job of recognizing the fact that it was mental illness versus some type of behavioral thing, some type of criminal act,” he said.

“That’s where we’re living in an imperfect reality with police officers being the ones who are the first line of defense and our organization and lots of other advocates feeling that if they are going to be the ones who are the first line of defense then they need training,” Singer said.

A common training used by police forces across the commonwealth is called CIT or Crisis Intervention Team Training. It’s a 40-hour course that in most jurisdictions is voluntary.

It teaches officers to more effectively manage situations when they encounter citizens with mental health illness.  Lt. Gandy worked to get the first set of Virginia Beach officers trained in 2008.

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program

Currently 20-25 percent of the patrol division in Virginia Beach is CIT trained. All dispatchers are also CIT trained.

In Virginia Beach, there were 4,180 cases involving mental health patients last year.

10 On Your Side did some digging and found of Virginia’s 133 localities, there are 117 active CIT programs. All of the seven Hampton Roads cities have active CIT programs.


The Hampton Roads Crisis Intervention Team Coalition is a consortium of community services boards and law enforcement agencies from 13 different jurisdictions that are dedicated to the expansion of CIT programs, training, and ongoing advanced education in the Hampton Roads area.

According to Norfolk Police Public Information Officer Daniel Hudson, “This is the first time that the individual programs in Hampton Roads have pooled their resources as a formal group and we are very excited about the potential for successful collaboration between our agencies.”

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services assesses the status of CIT programs across the Commonwealth. Click here to read findings from 2015.

Lt. Gandy says challenges with mental health patients are not a police problem alone.

“It affects so many segments of society. Unfortunately when it becomes that crisis situation it seems to be a police issue alone,” he said.

Everyone 10 On Your Side spoke to agrees training is not the only answer for this complex problem.

“We have to build more hospitals. We have to have more doctors, more staff to be able to take care of people,” Lt. Gandy said.

Singer also has a list of things that she believes could make a difference for people with mental illness.

“Mobile crisis teams, housing, jail diversion programs, having immediate same day access to appointments so that people don’t have to wait,” Singer said.

Bolen realizes her clients will never get their loved ones back, but she wants to see mandatory training for all officers and a written protocol for every law enforcement agency across the state so no one else has to die because of a mental health misunderstanding.

Bolen says although state law mandates training, it does not mandate a standard operating procedure, policy or general order to carry out the training when police are dispatched to a mental health crisis or situation.

“You’re talking about people’s lives,” she said.

Lt. Gandy says families can help police by making sure loved ones with mental illness get treatment, go to their appointments and take their medication.

Community members should also be aware. If you observe a problem with a co-worker or friend, report it.

If there’s ever crisis and you do have to call police, be clear about your loved one’s illness so police know exactly who to dispatch.

A community services board (CSB) is the point of entry into the publicly funded system of services for mental health, intellectual disability, and substance abuse. Click here to find the CSB near you.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255)