The Milwaukee Police Department says, when possible, it summons officers with special training but could use much more community support.
The Public Safety Committee summoned MPD representatives to a meeting Thursday to explain how the department prepares officers to respond to suspects with mental illness. Council members placed the item on the agenda, while an investigation continues into the police shooting of a man at Red Arrow Park downtown. People nearby had summoned police, concerned about the man's behavior. The officer reported a short struggle with him and then fear for safety. It was later learned that the man suffered from serious mental illness.
Inspector Carianne Yerkes says the MPD fielded 7,000 calls for help last year, involving people with mental illnesses - and those were just the calls that defined the problem.
“Many times, mental health calls do not come over as a mental health call. They come over as, trouble with a subject; they come over as family trouble, trouble with juveniles. They are not always identified as what they are, so when the officer gets there, they’re responding but there’s really a larger, underlying problem that’s going on,” Yerkes said.
Yerkes says, to better prepare officers to identify and respond to people in a mentally unstable state, the MPD began offering crisis intervention training in 2006. The program is known as CIT. It takes 40 hours and is voluntary for Milwaukee officers.
“CIT is additional training. It’s for police officers that want to learn more and do more when it comes to dealing with individuals who have mental illness,” Yerkes said.
According to Yerkes, nearly 370 MPD employees have gone through CIT training, about 20-percent of the force.
Alderwoman Milele Coggs wondered why the department doesn’t mandate the program for all officers on patrol.
“Whether or not people like it, we all got jobs but might not like all the stuff that we get trained on, but the skill set that you gain and the knowledge that you gain through that training will aid you every day that you’re out here. And then when a situation (arises) that may not have been pre-identified, but what you learned, you are able to use. It could make all the difference in the world,” Coggs said.
Coggs asked whether the officer involved in the Red Arrow Park shooting was CIT trained, and Yerkes responded, no.
“It does not make them mental health providers. It does not make them mental health experts. And even some of our best CIT officers have been put into situations in which they had to use deadly force,” Yerkes said.
One theme people repeated at Thursday’s hearing and Alderman Bob Donovan echoed, is that the community must find ways to care for a lamentable number of people with mental health problems.
"This is a larger community issue and it cannot be just dropped in the hands of the police department. Everyone needs to be involved,” Donovan said.