Brandee Casias, director of Utah’s statewide crisis intervention training (CIT) program, has a personal connection to the subject.
“There was mental illness and substance abuse in my family,” she said. “And I witnessed a lot of run-ins with the police that could have been handled differently.”
After high school, Casias enlisted in the military (and after 15 years, she continues to serve as an Air Force reservist), then joined the Salt Lake City Police Department. She also became a licensed therapist.
Around the time she became a police officer in the early 2000s, several high-profile incidents in Salt Lake City involving law enforcement and people experiencing mental health crises made headlines. In one case, a person who was convinced the local newscasters were trying to hurt her, and who had called the news station more than 500 times, forced her way into the building and killed one person. In another situation, an individual who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia entered a library and started shooting, killing two people and injuring three others. He died on the scene after exchanging gunfire with police.
As the incidence of such cases increased, it became clear that Salt Lake City officers, and police officers across Utah, needed better, more thorough response training. So the Utah’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health started funding regional CIT academies. Today, there are 20 such academies in the state, where individuals can go for the full 40-hour, weeklong training.
One of these academies teaches a special type of CIT geared toward the corrections environment. Casias noted that since Utah began offering a prison-focused CIT class, the average number of yearly instances of injury involving an inmate in mental health crisis has dropped from over 60 to fewer than 10.
A Utah jurisdiction interested in starting its own CIT academy receives initial training from Casias, but all the instructors will eventually come from the local area.
Utah also has two CIT for youth academies, where school administrators and resource officers can take an eight-hour course on how to respond to a child who has a possible behavioral or mental health issue. The state offers autism training, too—a five-hour course taught by a retired lieutenant who has a nephew with autism, which teaches officers how to respond to calls involving adults who have autism. There’s also a PTSD class that instructs officers not only how to respond to situations involving individuals with PTSD, but how to be aware if they themselves are exhibiting PTSD symptoms.
Even with so many academies, Casias noted, it’s still difficult to reach rural areas. “We have a statewide training program, sure,” she said. “But if your jurisdiction has only five officers, how do you find a way to get them the weeklong training?”
What’s more, she said, demand is outpacing supply. “Our classes fill up fast, and we’re always looking for ways to offer more.” As far as problems go, though, she knows it’s not a bad one to have.