New Orleans Police Department Officer Nicola Cotton died at 24, the victim of a mentally ill man who gained control of her service weapon and shot her in 2008 in Central City.
An NOPD detective shot Christopher Olmstead in the Holy Cross neighborhood in July after the 60-year-old man went on what police described as a rampage with his pickup. Neighbors said he had experienced repeated mental health episodes for years.
The danger in such encounters can be great for both police and civilians, but until now, the NOPD has lacked specialized training for officers faced with mental health crises. On Thursday, though, the department recognized the first graduating batch of 24 officers specially trained to respond to mental and behavioral incidents.
That Crisis Intervention Team training has yet to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice under the terms of a 2012 court-ordered reform agreement governing many aspects of the NOPD’s work, but the department is moving ahead in providing 40 hours of training for officers on how to “de-escalate” mental health crises.
“We really need this. It’s been a long time coming,” Superintendent Michael Harrison said earlier this month. “It’s going to help move the Police Department forward really fast.”
Daniel Murphy, a consent decree compliance manager for the NOPD, said the goal of the training is to teach officers how to cool down situations involving the mentally ill or those with behavioral issues. Over their week of training, officers engaged in role-playing scenarios to practice their skills.
At least 20 percent of the force is supposed to be trained to handle mental health crises by August 2016, according to the terms of the federal consent decree. An April report from court-appointed monitors for the reform agreement found that the department was “not yet in compliance” with its obligation to create an effective crisis intervention structure.
On the other hand, the monitors said they were impressed by the “energy” of the groups involved in planning for crisis intervention, including EMS officials, judges and Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, who is vested with the power to order psychiatric commitments.
A 2011 report from the Justice Department painted a picture of a department desperately in need of officers capable of handling mental health crises. Investigators found several cases where “NOPD officers used significant force against mentally ill persons where it appeared that no use of force was justified.”
Other police departments, too, struggle with handling situations involving the mentally ill. A review by The Washington Post found that one quarter of the civilians killed by police nationwide in the first half of 2015 showed signs of mental or emotional crisis.
New Orleans, like many cities across the country, has modeled its crisis intervention training after a program introduced in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988 after a killing there. The program emphasizes connecting specially trained police officers with social services and mental health treatment programs.
Murphy said the NOPD is waiting on Department of Justice approval of the local program. Once that is granted, training will roll out on a wider scale to officers throughout the department.
“When we get a mental health call, they will be the officers, if available, dispatched to the scene,” Murphy said.