Like many in law enforcement, city police Officer Jason Munsie answers the calls of those in distress. A number of those calls involve people with psychiatric problems.
Last week, he and 10 other officers tried to put themselves in the shoes of the mentally ill.
In one training exercise the officers tried walking a line during a field sobriety test while listening to disturbing voices through headphones.
"You're trying to function and you can't concentrate on what you want to do because of the voices," said Officer Munsie.
The exercise was part of a weeklong training program for a newly created city-county Crisis Intervention Team to help officers better deal with people who have mental illnesses. The idea was to demonstrate that for a schizophrenic hearing frightening voices, even simple tasks can be difficult or impossible.
Besides the sobriety tests, the officers wearing headphones tried to perform other tasks including reading text and answering questions.
Officer Munsie, a part-time student at the University of Pittsburgh working on a master's in social work, said he found the classes helpful.
"We only see one side," city police Detective Julie Stoops said, adding that her work has made her sympathetic to mentally ill people. "[Through the classes] you get a better understanding of the reasons people do what they do, and maybe make a bad time a little better for them."
City Detective Karen McLellan, coordinator of the program, said 25 to 28 percent of those incarcerated in Allegheny County are mentally ill.
The program is the result of a partnership of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The U.S. Department of Justice provided a 30-month grant of $275,000. Mercy Behavioral Health in the South Side hosted the classes last week.
For the classes, mental health professionals and people with experience with addictions or mental illness used exercises and lectures to teach law enforcement officers how to identify someone with a mental illness and how to handle calls from the mentally ill and those with addictions.
Officers learned nonverbal cues and communication techniques when dealing with the mentally ill. Participants also role-played with instructors. In one scenario, a mental health instructor might play a person with Alzheimer's refusing to leave a store or who's lost on the street.
Officers who complete the voluntary program will work their regular shifts in their zones and wear a badge with the letters CIT on it above their name tag. They will respond to calls involving the mentally ill or be called to back up other officers. Detective McLellan said CIT officers will still make arrests when necessary, and a counselor at the jail can suggest possible treatment to the magistrate.
"The people who fall through the cracks will probably be the largest group of people that officers will help -- the people who don't warrant an arrest or aren't a danger to themselves or anyone else. This is another option for them," Detective McLellan said.
The county Office of Behavioral Health is working with local health care providers to set up central receiving centers where police can take people who need temporary care or assessment. Mentally ill people go on a voluntary basis. Mercy Behavioral has been designated as a central receiving center.
Detective McLellan said she hopes to see the weeklong program take place every other month until a third to a half of city police officers are trained. With roughly 900 police officers on the city force attending on a volunteer basis, the goal should be reached in a few years. Officers in other departments within the county could also volunteer for future classes, she said.
The program began in Memphis, Tenn., in 1988 and is used in more than 20 states, Detective McLellan said.
"Cities utilizing the program have seen a reduction in the number of revisited cases and an increase in officer safety," she said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 4, 2007) Grants for the city-county Crisis Intervention Team totaled $275,000. This story as originally published July 3, 2007 had an incorrect amount.
Sara McCune can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1122.