During a police officer’s day-to-day interaction with the public, chances are he or she will run into a person with mental illness — knowing what to do in that situation is paramount.
That’s why Joan Lucera has committed so much time in recent years to bringing Crisis Intervention Team training to Historic Triangle law enforcement organizations. The weeklong course — which more than 85 area police officers have now completed — offers officers the training they need to effectively communicate with people in a mental health crisis.
Lucera was recently honored by the Colonial Community Criminal Justice Board for her work to bring the training to the area.
The first class of officers completed the program early in 2012 after a lengthy period to get the program set up in the area. Agencies involved in the training include the Williamsburg Police Department, the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, the James City County Police Department, the Williamsburg-James City County Sheriff’s Office, the William and Mary Police Department and staff from the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.
Lucera wrote the grant that secured funding for a coordinator for CIT in the area when she worked for Colonial Behavioral Health. In addition to writing the grant, Lucera crafted a plan to implement the training.
“She’s done all the heavy lifting behind the scenes to get this program going,” said Jay Sexton, a retired Williamsburg Police Department officer who helps coordinate the training. “Joan has really been the driving force behind this program for years. Pretty much all of the credit should go to her.”
The ultimate goal of the program is to divert people with mental illnesses and other mental health crises from ending up in the criminal justice system when they do not belong there.
“Once someone with a mental illness, an intellectual disability or an addiction ends up in the criminal justice system, it’s a downward spiral,” Lucera said. “Roughly 25 percent of people in jails or prisons are mentally ill.”
The objective is for about 25 percent of area police officers to be trained, Lucera said. That means more than 200 more officers will need to go through the program, which Sexton said is a boon to law enforcement operations.
“At the beginning there was a little skepticism about it, but now I think we’re starting to change some attitudes,” Sexton said. “Some of these officers who have been through the classes have gone back to their departments and have told other officers how great it is, or have demonstrated that on the streets. We’ve had a lot more people wanting to be in the CIT training or actually even volunteer to go through with the training.”
Officers spend 40 hours training to get their CIT certification. In addition to classroom work, they are subjected to numerous scenarios designed to replicate interactions they might face in the streets. Other hands-on training includes the use of a CD player plugged into surround-sound headphones that plays an audio track simulating the voices someone suffering from schizophrenia hears in their head.
Lucera said the training is important also in that a peaceful, controlled resolution to an interaction with someone having a mental health crises minimizes the risk of physical injury for both the officer and the subject.
CIT got its start with the Memphis Police Department in 1988 and has since spread to law enforcement organizations throughout the world.