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Lakeview Trains Police To Respond To Mental Illness

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Area police agencies are being specially trained to deal with mentally ill people and the program has cut down on violence and saved lives. "I have deescalated situations where the subject was armed, talked to him, had him walk to an ambulance and taken to get treatment...all without handcuffs." 

That’s what Lieutenant Patrick Vega of the Santa Rosa County Sheriffs' Department had to say about the training he and many other law enforcement officers in the area have received in dealing with mentally ill individuals.

The program is called CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training, and it’s based on what’s known as The Memphis Model of pre-arrest jail diversion for individuals undergoing a mental health crisis. Mary Carter is the CIT Mental Health Coordinator at the Lakeview Center of Pensacola. She says the program was created after an incident police had with a mentally ill person in Memphis in the late 1980s. There was after public outcry over the police shooting of a mentally ill man who was cutting himself with a knife. "There was a lot of outcry in the community with law enforcement." Carter says this program has the mentally ill brought in for treatment instead of incarceration.

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Credit Lakeview Center
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The program at the Lakeview Center began in 2007. Lieutenant Vega was a member of that first group of officers. He says one of the most important aspects of the training is learning how to recognize mental illness before a situation escalates. "(The program) teaches us how to identify people that are exhibiting a mental health crisis...how to determine if people are off their medications by the way they're talking, by the way they're acting, by the way they're interacting with others. So it's a variety of different things and (has a lot do to with) interpersonal skills."

And those skills are being used by most law enforcement agencies in the area.  Officer Kyle Gallagher is with the University Of West Florida Police Department and also completed the program. He says he has used techniques from the training numerous times in situations on campus. Officer Gallagher also says many area agencies are cooperating. "Mental illness (takes) a community effort, and what I've seen is just how well local hospitals have worked with law enforcement in the area to get these people the treatment that they need."

The CIT Training is a 40-hour program. The Lakeview Center graduated its 29th class earlier this month, meaning 659 officers in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties have completed the training. Mary Carter says safety is what drives everyone involved. "We want everyone to be safe. Community safety, consumer safety and safety for law enforcement."

And all of this is being done on a shoe string. There is little to no funding available for the CIT Training. Lieutenant Vega says "nobody's paid. Everybody volunteers their time for the program and we have no funding source."

The Lakeview Center holds its CIT training quarterly. There is one more session scheduled before the end of the year.