Brief description: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) is a police department in North Carolina which has jurisdiction over the city of Charlotte and the unincorporated areas of Mecklenburg County. CMPD is the largest police department between Washington D.C. and Atlanta GA, with almost 2,000 officers on the force. In 2016, CMPD has made participation in MHFA training mandatory for all of their officers and has trained approximately 90% of their police force in the last year.
Improving police interaction with mentally ill population
There was a time when being trained in MHFA wasn’t mandatory for CMPD police officers; however, because of the increasing frequency with which police officers are now interacting with individuals suffering from mental illness, CMPD’s leadership had to find a solution to equip their officers with the tools necessary to handle such situations. Assistant Chief Veronica “Vicki” Foster explains why MHFA was the right program for their department’s needs, saying, “We realized our force didn’t have the expertise and information we needed to interact with mentally ill people.” She continued that while Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) was being offered to a subset of police officers, department leadership wanted something that could be delivered to everyone: “Being such a large police force, it would have been impossible to train everyone in CIT –it would be hard to do on a large scale since it’s so intensive. MHFA was exactly what we needed, something relatively short and scalable to our entire force, but still effective in providing our officers with the know-how to handle sensitive situations.”
Assistant Chief Foster also mentioned that besides helping officers to handle situations involving mental health issues appropriately as a means to avoid potentially catastrophic outcomes, MHFA also had additional value in lending more credibility to CMPD officers’ actions in the eyes of the larger community. Foster explains: “The community wants to know that all of our officers have a basic level of training about mental health. We want to be able to assure the community that we do have a basic understanding of mental health.”
Results of MHFA
Almost all of CMPD’s officers have taken MHFA training, which is now offered to every incoming officer during police academy. CMPD has a slightly different setup from most local police departments, in that it runs the police academy and thus has flexibility to include MHFA as part of the police academy curriculum. Each officer has a certain number of hours allocated for additional trainings that the department considers useful; in this case, some of that time is dedicated to MHFA.
The training is provided to CMPD by instructors from Mental Health America of Central Carolinas, a local organization dedicated to improving mental health services in the state. CMPD contributes to the cost of course manuals. As of recently, CMPD has been undergoing efforts to track their officer’s interactions with individuals suffering from mental health disorders and record the outcomes of such interactions. At the ground level, CMPD officers have found the MHFA training to be particularly useful in helping identify and deescalate situations where an individual might be suffering from mental health disorders.
Lt. Christian Wagner of CMPD mentioned that it is quite difficult to quantify the impact that MHFA has had on the officers, especially since many are not likely to seek credit for their remarkable actions, therefore letting many incredible stories go unnoticed. However, Lt. Wagner did remember one particular incident, which went viral, after a CMPD officer drew upon his mental health first aider skills to deescalate a dangerous situation. Lt. Wagner recalls, “CMPD made national news a couple of years ago when Officer Tim Purdy encountered an individual suffering from autism who was resisting his colleagues’ attempts to restrain him. Purdy was able to calm him down and deescalate the situation, thus potentially avoiding much worse consequences.”
Future direction of MHFA
CMPD plans to continue training every officer in Mental Health First Aid, as the program has shown itself to be extremely valuable to its officers. With MHFA as a foundation for every first responder on the force, Assistant Chief Foster is looking to develop systems that will now enable officers to connect individuals suffering from mental health issues to the longer term care they need. She is, however, very aware that this will be a challenging task given the lack of available mental health services in the area.
MHFA training for police officers has significant impact beyond the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, with numerous other police academies across the country choosing to mandate that their officers to participate in the training. MHFA is a proud implementing partner of the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s One Mind Campaign, which seeks to ensure successful interactions between police officers and persons affected by mental illness. To date, the One Mind Campaign has received pledges from over 330 agencies committed to providing their officers with training such as MHFA or CIT in order to better help them interact with individuals affected by mental illness. In order to better accommodate the increased number of first responders participating in the training, MHFA has also developed a Public Safety module which is geared towards the lived experiences of first responders.