CFJ joins appeal to City’s new police chief to expedite changes in the way the SPD responds to emergencies involving the mentally ill.
In a letter sent last week to Frank Straub, Spokane’s new director of law enforcement, the Center for Justice, the National Alliance for Mental Illness’s (NAMI) Spokane Chapter, and several other organizations and community leaders make a broad and detailed appeal that the Spokane Police Department embrace what is known as the “Crisis Intervention Team” (CIT) approach to handling encounters with mentally ill individuals in distress.
The letter is intended to build on the terms of the recent settlement of the civil suit brought by the family of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled musician and janitor who was killed by Spokane police. Among the requirements of the settlement is that virtually all SPD patrol officers receiving CIT training.
“Our expectation given the CIT training requirements of the Zehm settlement is that CIT-trained officers will be available during each encounter with an individual with suspected mental impairments,” the signatories state in the letter to the new police chief. “Moreover, our hope is that CIT trained officers—and particularly officers and response units who’ve demonstrated exceptional CIT skills—will be ready and deployed whenever a high-risk and potentially dangerous situation involving mentally impaired individuals presents itself. We think recent episodes involving SPD response to mentally-impaired individuals underscore the crucial need to have CIT specialists involved and guiding the police response, particularly in dangerous situations.
CIT is recognized, nationally, as the gold standard for how police agencies should respond to incidents, conflicts, etc., involving people who are exhibiting signs of mental illness. The concept was pioneered and implemented by the Memphis Police Department following the tragic police shooting of a mentally ill man in 1987.
“The Crisis Intervention Team program was adopted by the Spokane Police Department in 2001 and since then only 64 of their staff have received the 40 hour training,” notes Ron Anderson with the Spokane chapter of NAMI. “We would like to see a substantial increase in the number of police officers trained according to the core elements of the Memphis Model. We believe that the most important attribute of a law enforcement officer responding to a psychiatric emergency is the ability to safely defuse potentially dangerous situations. However, effective law enforcement alone is not enough. We also recognize the need for the establishment of a supportive network of community mental health treatment and social services vital to the implementation of an effective CIT program. It will take a community effort with the Spokane Police Department leading the way.”
In addition to CFJ and NAMI-Spokane, the signatories to the letter are the League of Women Voters-Spokane, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, Progressive Democrats, Spokane, and the Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group.
Both in his public interview and in his introductory remarks following his selection by Mayor David Condon, Straub has voiced his understanding of the challenges involved with police interactions with the mentally ill, and expressed his commitment to putting in place best practices. At his appointment ceremony in August he highlighted his work on building partnerships with mental health practitioners during his tenure as the commissioner of public safety in White Plains, New York, from 2002 to 2010.
After receiving the letter, Straub sent an email reply expressing his interest to begin working on the issues in his new position at the SPD.
“Chief Straub announced his goal on Monday [October 8th] that the Spokane Police Department would become the best mid-sized department in the nation,” says Spokane attorney Breean Beggs, who helped negotiate the Otto Zehm settlement with the City. “If he takes the lead of other successful cities and incorporaes CIT from top to bottom and from recruitment to promotion he will achieve his goal. As he said, the Department needs to be filled with Peace Officers. Transforming CIT from an auxiliary program to the core of policing will create peace in the community and the success that our City so desperately wants.”
“The focus on CIT is vital,” says Tim Connor, the Center for Justice’s community advocate for police accountability. “What the Memphis experience and so many others show is that when you adjust your police practices to respond to the needs of the mentally ill and their families, you can actually achieve a good part of the culture change a police force needs to build community support. In Spokane it will not just help avert tragedies like those that resulted in the deaths of Otto Zehm and Josh Levy, but it should help the department restore public confidence across the board. But City Hall and the SPD have to embrace the program for that to happen.”