© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Training South Florida Police Officers In Mental Health

José A. Iglesias
Miami Herald

The Miami-Dade Crisis Intervention Team trains police officers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties on how to respond to calls that involve someone who is mentally ill.

The CIT had trained more than 4,500 police officers across 35 police departments.

In February, 25-year-old Lavall Hall was killed by a Miami Gardens police officer. He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Police say Hall was carrying a broom and attacked two officers.

The case remains under investigation. A Miami Gardens police spokesman said the responding officers in Hall's case were trained on how to handle calls involving people with mental illness.

The 40-hour CIT mental health training course is not mandatory for all police officers. Each department sets its own rules.

Habsi Kaba is a training coordinator with the CIT. Below are excerpts of her interview with WLRN.  

What does the CIT police training look like?

We will spend an entire day on non-verbal and verbal techniques and intervention. How to approach, how to speak, what to say, what not to say -- the key here is slowing it down. It’s listening, [it’s] observing certain behaviors. For example, what is paranoia? If paranoia could speak, it would say, "I’m afraid." So what do we do for someone who's in fear? We tell them, "You’re safe,” and, “I’m not here to hurt you. I want to help you.”

You’re not just teaching tactical skills, much of this is also empathy training. How do you teach empathy?

By actually bringing in people with mental illnesses who are in recovery. Someone who doesn’t understand mental illness may be afraid as well. We fear what we don’t understand.

In this last class that we had a person with mental illness who's been in recovery now for almost 10 years, and in that class was a police officer who arrested him 10 years ago and the officer could not believe the transformation.

When you first walk into the classroom to teach police officers, what are some of their initial perceptions of what it means to be mentally ill?

Very similar perceptions to the rest of the world. I ask this question in all classes,"I want you to think fast. I’m going to use one word and then tell me what comes to mind." I use the word mentally ill. They’ll say homeless, sick, medication and Baker Act.

But then I show them the other side of it. So we talk about races, ages, gender, socioeconomic status -- it doesn't matter. It can affect anyone at anytime.

Do you have a specific training exercise that gets to the heart of what you want officers to walk away with after this training course?

Actually, there is an exercise that we conduct in the beginning of the week and we titled it “Hearing Voices.” An exercise where officers need to follow the instructions of the instructor, while the other half of the [class] are actually standing behind those officers and just speaking to them simultaneously as the instructor is trying to provide the instructions.

In the end of the exercise we learn that maybe one, if that, is able to complete that exercise. When we asked them what happened, they say, “We couldn’t hear you because the voices kept talking to us.”

And this is really an opportunity to put those officers in the shoes of someone who may be hearing voices, who be actively receiving some type of internal stimuli and not be able to follow police instructions. And that’s when they say, “Aha, I get it.”