Editorial: HPD effort vital for mentally ill
In Hawaii and on the mainland, law enforcement officers increasingly are serving as first responders in cases of mental health crisis.
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In Hawaii and on the mainland, law enforcement officers increasingly are serving as first responders in cases of mental health crisis. That role is visible every day on Honolulu streets, where many among thousands of homeless individuals are grappling with mental illness, addiction and disability-related challenges.
For officers lacking proper training, even minor confrontation can quickly escalate, putting all involved in danger — as individuals with mental illness don’t always respond to de-escalation tactics that work effectively on others.
For the sake of better community policing, it’s encouraging to see this year’s launch of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training — a Honolulu Police Department partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Hawaii (NAMI Hawaii), Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and other community partners.
Nationwide, some 3,000 communities now have CIT programs, which involve 40 hours of training to educate officers about mental health issues. Since the local effort got underway in August, nearly 60 HPD officers have completed coursework that stresses more social worker know-how and less use-of-force strategy. It’s necessary progress for HPD, whose officers in recent years have had to confront more mentally unstable individuals, some of them carrying weapons.
NAMI Hawaii’s executive director, Kumi Macdonald, describes the training as the “gold standard” in the movement to improve police response to crisis incidents. Further, she said, “Officers learning skills are less likely to be injured themselves while saving lives.”
In addition to instruction from mental health experts on techniques for peaceful handling of crisis situations, a vital part of CIT training involves people with mental illness and their families meeting with officers to share their stories about coping with problems or offering personal critiques of past interactions with law enforcement.
Designed to focus largely on individuals in crisis who do not meet the legal requirements for involuntary treatment and intervention, CIT’s community-
based approach aims to also include judges, doctors and other health care providers. The sensible intent is to connect people with needed treatment rather than jail time.
According to NAMI, in recent years, as people across the country are more likely to encounter police than get medical help during a mental health crisis, some 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails annually. And while detained, many individuals don’t receive needed treatment and end up getting worse — setting the stage for trouble upon release.
Honolulu’s CIT program was initiated by way of a Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance grant secured by HPD last year, which allowed national experts to come to the islands to train police, NAMI Hawaii representatives and others, who can now train others. Previously, HPD officer training was largely limited to a six-hour session on mental health first-aid basics. Also, a social services-focused city Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program has been in the works since 2018.
In addition to continuing to enroll HPD officers in training, Macdonald said NAMI Hawaii hopes to help bring the CIT to law enforcement personnel on neighbor islands as well as to state sheriff deputies, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and county fire departments. All of these first responders stand to benefit from the training.
Based on national mental health statistics, NAMI Hawaii estimates that at least 60,000 Hawaii residents live with one or more serious mental illnesses. Crisis Intervention Team training is a much-needed — and overdue — empathetic step in re-thinking community safety practices.