Methods: As part of a broader evaluation of a Midwestern County Sheriff’s Office’s (MCSO) CIT program, a convenience sample of eight officers was recruited. Observational data was gathered by an observer who rode in a MCSO patrol vehicle as officers responded to dispatched calls, civilian requests, and traffic stops throughout eight-hour shifts. Between December 2016 and January 2017, ten shifts were completed. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with officers to contextualize observations, focusing on officers’ demographics, employment background, strategies in managing mental health crises, and motivations for undergoing training. Descriptive statistics described officer demographics. A 43-item checklist was created to collect information about mental health-identified encounters observed, and the observer cross-checked behaviors and outcomes observed against principles outlined in CIT literature. Checklist items were drawn from verbal and non-verbal behavioral strategies outlined in crisis intervention literature. Outcomes were grouped into four categories: contact, informal resource referral, transport, and arrest. After each shift, the observer wrote detailed field notes, which were then coded using content analysis.
Results: Across eight officers, two were CIT-trained, criminal-legal field tenure averaged 12.75 years, and officers were racially heterogeneous and mostly male. All CIT-trained officers indicated proximity to mental illness in their social circles as a primary reason for undergoing training. Seventeen mental health-identified encounters were observed, with 88% being managed by an untrained officer (n=15) and 12% by a CIT-trained officer (n=2). Training was associated with even tones of voice and open body language. CIT-trained officers were less likely to use physical force and demonstrated novel ways to resolve mental health crises. Untrained officers were more likely to use insensitive language towards individuals experiencing behavioral health crises. Training did not appear to affect encounter outcomes.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest CIT training can inform officer behaviors and strategies. Differences in behaviors suggest officers could benefit from CIT programs and trainings emphasizing empathy and de-escalation when responding to mental health crises. Yet, findings show untrained officers often already utilize many techniques outlined in crisis intervention literature. Future studies should use observational methods to examine how trainings inform behaviors and use larger samples to account for variations in officer characteristics, shift times, and training saturations.