For as long as anyone can remember, the relationship between police and mentally ill people and their advocates has been strained. But due to tragedy, healing and unprecedented collaboration between healthcare, the justice system and law enforcement, all that began to change about 30 years ago.

The changes occurred right there in Memphis — and spread across the country. Today, a remarkable transformation in how police interact with the mentally ill has occurred in about 3,000 cities all over the US. Still, it’s just a fraction of the nation’s population, and much work remains.

It was more than 30 years ago that a mentally ill man in Memphis who was acting erratically, knife in hand, was shot dead by police.

The community outcry? “We can’t treat people this way.”

“A community task force comprised of law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals and mental health advocates collaborated to develop what is now internationally known as the Memphis CIT Model,” wrote Amy Watson of the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams School of Social Work in a 2012 paper on the CIT program for Best Practices in Mental Health.1

Early successes are indicators that the program works, according to the paper. “The body of research on CIT is limited, but overall it is promising. Initial reports from Memphis suggest that the CIT program has reduced arrests and increased safety and diversion to mental health services.”

Police Are Not Mental Health Professionals

Most police will readily explain that for years they have not felt good about arresting mentally ill people, particularly when they are doing so even though no crime has been committed or charges filed. (Yes, this really happens, and it’s legal to varying degrees from state to state.) The argument proponents of this arcane, liability-laden practice say that putting a mentally ill person in jail, in solitary confinement to “cool off,” will keep them safe for at least a little while.

However, research has shown that isolation can cause psychosis even among people with no history of mental illness. Its effects on the mentally ill can be devastating and even encourage suicidal behavior. Police also readily admit that they don’t much care for playing the role of mental health counselor when the mentally ill person has no one else to call other than 911 when having an anxiety attack or some other crisis.

Police have been just as exasperated by the situation as mental health advocates, and in compassionate ways often lost in the discussion. The issue hasn’t been that police do not want to help these mentally ill callers to 911 (or those who call about them), just as they would any other resident who dials for help. But it takes special training to diffuse someone with a mental health condition who may be angry, paranoid or depressed.

Training Helps Cops Defuse Explosive Situations

In Memphis, mental health calls are referred to as “mental consumers” over the radio by dispatchers, according to a report published last year in the Commercial Appeal.2

In most cities, CIT training – the now-national curriculum developed by Memphis first responders – is voluntary, but some chiefs do require it.

“That has always been impressive to me that those officers step forward to voluntarily take special training to help those struggling with something that they have no control over,” Dr. Randolph Dupont, a Memphis psychiatrist, told the Commercial Appeal.

“Their main goal is to provide alternatives to the individuals,” Dupont said. “The majority of what they do is provide referrals to individuals to seek help through other alternatives such as the community mental health system, religious profits, the VA and others.”

According to the City of Memphis website, the department has 268 trained CIT officers. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Training.3

“Due to the training, CIT officers can, with confidence, offer a more humane and calm approach,” the website reads. “These officers maintain a 24-hour, seven day a week coverage.”

Preventing Crises Before They Happen

In so many cases where people end up in jail or worse, the incidents involve people with bipolar who may be having a manic attack. Other times, police are rushed to the scene of a suicide attempt, where someone may have just taken an entire bottle of pills or is preparing to leap from a tall bridge or building.

In Memphis, Lakeside Behavioral Health System offers services that prevent such crises from happening, particularly among people who may have an ongoing mental health diagnosis. Lakeside is particularly well known for its bipolar disorder, suicide intervention, trauma resolution and dual diagnosis programs. Dual diagnosis programs treat co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders at the same time, helping to ensure lasting recovery.

While hard numbers are not available, the popularity of CIT programs both among mental health professionals and law enforcement appears to be growing.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health Services just established a partnership with Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy (TLETA) “to develop and implement additional specialized mental health crisis intervention training, to be made to existing law enforcement officers and new TLETA recruits,” Micheal A. Jones, director of communications for the state agency, told Foundations Recovery Network.

“I became a CIT officer because I wanted to help those who couldn’t help themselves,” said Chris Ross, who last year was given a Taser as a CIT officer as part of a pilot program. Officers must agree to be Tasered themselves before being issued the weapon. As a rookie cop, Ross saw an officer who had CIT training use only verbal skills to “defuse a potentially explosive situation,” the Commercial Appeal reported.


1. Watson, A. et al. (2012 Dec.), The crisis intervention team model of police response to mental health crises: A primer for mental health practitioners. Journal Best Practices Mental Health. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from
2. Jones, Y. (2016, March 5), Memphis Police Crisis Intervention Team works to defuse mental health calls. Commercial Appeal. Retrieved April 9, 2017, from–2c9bba98-fe28-1e3b-e053-371108951.html
3. City of Memphis, Tenn. (2017), Crisis Intervention Team. Retrieved April 9, 2017, from

Written by David Heitz