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A Broader Approach to Public Safety

New UMPD Crisis Intervention Team Trained to Sensitively Respond to Mental Health Issues

By Annie Krakower

Police uniform with "crisis intervention officer" pin

University of Maryland Police Cpl. Barton Brady wears a “Crisis Intervention Officer” pin on his uniform. He’s one of 12 members of UMPD’s new Crisis Intervention Team, with officers trained to recognize and understand signs of mental illness or distress, safely de-escalate situations, and identify community resources that can provide assistance.

Photo by John T. Consoli

Often, when police officers arrive at the scene of a crime or a call for help, their training kicks in to establish control, seek out potential safety risks and begin laying the groundwork for an investigation. But University of Maryland Police Cpl. Barton Brady has a new way to safeguard the community when he encounters someone who’s clearly distressed or distraught but not a threat—he just listens.

He might ask how the person is feeling or about their family, friends or even a sport they like, helping them calm down and realize someone cares. Known as “active listening,” it’s one of the techniques used by the UMPD’s new Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a group of 12 officers trained specifically to recognize and understand signs of mental illness or distress, safely de-escalate emergency situations, and identify community resources that can offer the appropriate assistance.

“We want to provide the best care and service possible to our campus community, and sometimes, when it’s a mental health crisis, we don’t have all the skills we need to deal most effectively with that,” UMPD Chief David Mitchell said. “CIT training broadens the horizon of officers to think beyond what might be just in front of them.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, UMPD noticed a concerning increase in mental health checks and contacted Chetan Joshi, director of the UMD Counseling Center, to discuss how to better address them. Together, they explored nearby crisis intervention training programs, including opportunities with American University, the Southern Maryland Regional Crisis Intervention Team and the Santé Group Prince George’s County.

At the same time, issues surrounding crisis intervention and police interactions with the community were coming under increasing scrutiny nationwide—and sometimes sparking widespread protests—after the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans.

“The whole point of the CIT training is really to increase understanding and sensitivity around mental health issues,” Joshi said. “(It) also focuses significantly on increasing understanding of cultural factors and their impact on police work through cultural sensitivity training.”

UMPD began sending its officers to the local certification courses last year. Throughout the 40-hour training, doctors, counselors and other specialists cover behaviors that police might encounter from people experiencing mental distress or those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or addiction. Then, in scenario-based exercises, role players demonstrate crises—such as a manic episode, intoxication or suicidal behavior—and officers practice de-escalation.

The foundation is in “getting personal with the (students) in a way to get their mind off of their stress or their anxiety,” said Brady, a CIT-trained officer.

The training also helps officers identify relevant resources in the area, like mental health services at hospitals or counseling centers. Now, when calls involving mental health crises come in to the UMPD, a dispatcher will direct an on-duty CIT member to be one of the responders and help community members reach the care they need.

“Nothing can frustrate somebody in a crisis more than interacting with an officer—or anybody—that just really doesn’t have knowledge about what’s going on with their lives,” said Sgt. Edward McDermott, another CIT member. “Being able to identify (mental distress) … can bring the temperature down, as opposed to things boiling over.”

More UMPD officers will receive the training as the partnership between the department and the Counseling Center continues to develop ways to best serve Terps’ needs.

That preparation is key “to be able to respond to those needs in a sensitive, kind, understanding, compassionate manner, and then take the actions necessary to provide assistance and keep the students safe,” Joshi said.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.