Crisis Intervention Teams and Policing: What They Are, How They Work

September 9, 2020

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Throughout 2020, much of the news cycle has been about police reform. One proposed change would be to expand the use of Crisis Intervention Teams in policing. But what is a Crisis Intervention Team? How do these teams work? And are these teams the future of policing?


What Is a Crisis Intervention Team?

Police are often the first responders to people in mental health or emotional crisis. In some cases, they are the only responders. Crisis Intervention Teams are made up of any of the following:

  • Officers who obtain special mental health training
  • Police department employees with mental health training
  • Independent mental health workers who work with police in the field (i.e., mobile crisis units)

The goal of the team is to provide services to those with mental health concerns. In appropriate cases, this involves diverting the individual out of the criminal legal system and getting them into treatment. The team can de-escalate a situation and provide appropriate mental health services and/or referrals. The training includes instruction about reducing the escalation of force used in these interactions in order to reduce the risk of injury to citizens as well as officers.


History of Crisis Intervention Teams

In 1987, police responded to a 911 call in Memphis, Tennessee. Joseph Dewayne Robinson’s mother called police, stating her son was using cocaine, cutting himself, and threatening people. Mr. Robinson also had a history of mental illness. Upon arrival, Mr. Robinson failed to respond to verbal commands from police. When he lunged at officers, he was shot multiple times and died.

In response to Mr. Robinson’s death, community members and police came together and developed the Memphis Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team. A decade later, the program showed positive results in reducing fatalities of mentally ill persons during police interactions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (“NAMI”) became involved, and now NAMI’s national branch advocates for implementation of such programs around the country. They also provide education and volunteer resources for such teams.


Future Use of Crisis Intervention Teams

In general, use of Crisis Intervention Teams has been positive. In many departments with teams, there is a downward trend for use of force when responding to reports of persons in crisis. The teams report increased use of verbal negotiations, increased referrals to mental health resources, and decreases in arrests.

The programs have also shown to improve the attitudes among police officers. Officers report feeling better about themselves and their jobs where there is a reduction in the use of force in such interactions. Crisis Intervention Team trained officers see themselves as less likely to escalate to the use of force in mental health crisis encounters.

One statistic which may point towards broader use in the future is the financial impact of such programs. While there may be a heavier cost up front in implementation, overall it may reduce the financial burden on society in general. Increased diversion to mental health services will reduce the costs associated with arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.