Members of Mecklenberg County’s Crisis intervention Team demonstrate their response to a call, image courtesy of Mecklenberg County, CC BY-NC 2.0. Image: A young black man sits at a picnic table, his hood up, speaking to a black woman who is taking notes. Two white police officers are in the foreground, one squatting and one standing, looking on.

Since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis over one year ago, police reforms across the country continue to make headlines and shift the meaning of public safety. One important reform area involves responding to community members with mental health crises. Police officers have sometimes been described as  “street corner psychiatrists” because 10%40% of their total emergency calls involve persons with mental health concerns. 

As communities increasingly recognize that police are not mental health professionals, they have begun partnering police with mental health professionals to form Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs), sometimes known as Crisis Response Teams, or Co-Response Teams

‘CIT’ Programs and Effectiveness

CITs are joint responses to mental health crises by multidisciplinary teams including police, mental health providers, social workers, and hospital emergency services which have three key features: 1) community collaboration 2) training for police, and 3) accessibility to mental health services. 

Social scientists are now evaluating the effectiveness and benefits of these programs.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports over 2,700 CIT programs in different communities across the United States.  Research has shown that these programs increase diversion from jails and prisons to mental health services by 11% – 22%, relieve police workloads by 27%, and reduce the likelihood of people with mental illness to be arrested by 11% – 12%.  While these figures regarding CITs are promising as a short term intervention, future investments in long-term stabilization programs are needed to sustainably address mental health crises.

Promising Practice

As a promising practice, CIT has evolved over recent decades and has been successful in promoting improvements in mental health responses, increased officer confidence for working with people experiencing a mental health crisis, and reduced frequency and length of detention.  However, consistency across program elements within CITs is scattered and more exploration is needed.  Future evaluation, standardization, and regulation of CITs is necessary.

Societal responses to mental health impact every person in the US – whether it is a neighbor across the street, a colleague, a friend, or a family member.  Social science research is playing an important part in evaluating and refining policies and programs such as CITs.  Rather than punishing mental crises, CITs view them through a treatment lens – fostering healing and restoration. While this early research shows the promise of CITs as a short term “first response” intervention, this research also suggests that “second response” investments in long-term mental health care are needed to equitably and sustainably address mental health crises.