Compass: Anchorage police impress a skeptic with response to mental health crisis

I got an opportunity to see the Anchorage Police Crisis Intervention Team in action recently was impressed.

I'm generally skeptical of law enforcement these days, and maybe have been for a while: Reports of "profiling" through the years, the criminalization of people who are dealing with mental, emotional and substance abuse problems, and the use of excessive force on citizens when it may have been unwarranted have undermined my belief in the motto "to protect and serve".

I respect the uniform and the people who wear it; I respect the idea of specially trained officers who protect and serve our society using the guidelines of, even if service delivery is at times less than perfect.

Nonetheless, since I work for a local mental health nonprofit, it is necessary for me to know what crisis services are available for people experiencing mental health crises and tell our clients about them with confidence.

So I was genuinely impressed when I got a chance to see the Anchorage CIT in action. These are the officers who have been specially trained to intervene in crisis situations that involve persons who are in a crisis due to mental illness or substance abuse. According the Municipality of Anchorage web site "The Crisis Intervention Team was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 after an incident in 1987 where Memphis police fatally shot a mentally ill man who was wielding a knife and inflicting injuries to himself"; they are a service to provide specialized responses to people with special conditions.

When a woman came into our offices distraught because her adult son was not taking his medications and causing her to lose sleep and time at work, I listened with empathy. Her son had been counseled by the CIT in the past, but that was when he was medication compliant: an difficult side effect of mental illness such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, dual addictions, and schizo-affective disorder, (and I can tell you from personal experience, depression), is a desire to not be required to take a bunch of pills for a seemingly indefinite period of time: It seems odd and unnatural; and they often have side effects.

So that her son was not on his meds was par for the course and not unusual for a person battling with one of the many common colds of the brain.

Yet the woman was hesitant to call the CIT's in this case for a couple of reasons:

1) Her son probably would not open the door to them in his current state and

2) "The Anchorage PD shoot people" were her approximate words.

I understood her misgivings; I suggested we call the CIT and get some advice over the phone as to whether or not her situation put her in danger and should she or should she not take her son to Providence Crisis Recovery.

I used the APD non-emergency number and the dispatcher took some information. She dispatched a couple of officers to stop by and talk at our offices. I guess the woman was fortunate that she came to our offices to talk and didn't have to figure this out while she was alone at home.

In less than 10 minutes the CIT officers arrived. They listened to the woman's story in private, called in to get further advice, called her son on the phone and talked with him (with respect and dignity), and finally secured his permission to go over and take him in to get help.

I was impressed that they were so patient and thorough. And they didn't come off as know-it-alls: they listened and counseled.

And the woman left our offices feeling relieved.

So if this note from a skeptic helps people to realize that, though imperfect, Anchorage law enforcement is using programs that work, good.

And kudos to the Anchorage CIT.

Christopher Sharpe in executive assistant for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Anchorage. The alliance is a nonprofit group that works to remove the stigma attached to mental illness and support the mentally ill, their families and loved ones.