Cleveland Police's Proposed Crisis Intervention Policies Vetted by Residents at Public Meetings

By Eric Heisig, Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2016)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cleveland residents and mental health professionals said at two public meetings Tuesday that while they generally approve of a set of proposed policies for how police interact with people in crisis, a few changes are needed to ensure the policies cover as many serious situations as possible.

Suggestions from those at two meetings, held at the Murtis Taylor Community Center and Urban Community School on the city's east and west sides, respectively, ranged from being more culturally sensitive to having an officer wear clothing or a badge showing that he or she is specially trained to work with the mentally ill.

The proposed new policies, unveiled in late November, are designed to give officers clear guidance on how to respond to those in crisis and who to call for additional assistance.

The proposed policies are mandated in a settlement the city reached with the U.S. Justice Department, which found many problems with the way officers interact with individuals.

Like the city's proposed new use-of-force policies, the proposed crisis-intervention policies were drafted after the Justice Department said officers lacked proper training on how to deal with the mentally ill.

Proposed policies that would dictate how Cleveland police officers deal with people in mental health crisis are a significant departure from the department's current guidelines.

All officers will undergo eight hours of crisis intervention training, while a new squad of specialized officers will receive 40 hours of training. 

Randolph Dupont a professor at the University of Memphis and a member of the Cleveland police monitoring team, told a crowd Tuesday that similar policies have been shown to reduce the need to use force and make arrests and have resulted in fewer injuries to officers.

He said Cleveland's proposed policies are uniquely tailored to the needs of local residents.

"This is not a city where cookie cutter approaches work well," Dupont said.

Here are a few things that residents said could be improved. Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Tonsing Volosin told a crowd that the city, Justice Department and the monitor will review all of the suggestions and possibly make changes to the policies before a final draft is given to Chief U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. for approval.

Special clothing for specialized officers

During both meetings, community members said they feel crisis intervention officers should wear clothing or a visible badge or insignia that clearly notes that they are trained to deal with those in crisis.

"Seeing a regular police officer's uniform can trigger trauma if you see a regular officer come," said Kareem Hinton, a local activist, in a group discussion at the East Side meeting. He said earlier that residents who had frequent interactions with officers may react in two different ways: complete compliance or trying to flee.

Hinton wasn't alone. Discussions about wearing clothing that shows that an officer went through specialized crisis training was one of the most discussed topics at both meetings. Some suggested a vest, others suggested an armband.

Cleveland police's crisis intervention officers currently wear a pin, though there has been talk of redesigning it and making sure the public knows what to look for to spot a specially trained officer.

Officer discretion

The proposed policy, while giving clear guidance, does give officers discretion on how to handle situations.

Deputy Police Chief Joellen O'Neill told the crowd on the East Side that if somebody has committed a felony, an officer or officers will take that person to jail. First they will go to the hospital though, she said.

But for lesser crimes, some said officers could possibly choose not to file charges.

Cleveland Metroparks Ranger Department Lt. Victor McDowell, in a group discussion at the East Side meeting, said discretion is important. If a person acts out, and that could be seen as disorderly conduct, it may not necessarily warrant a charge if there is an alternative that ensures the person gets help, McDowell said.

Recognize other medical needs

Some also suggested making the policy clear that officers should look for signs of other types of illness when responding to crisis calls. This includes asking questions of the person or family to see if they can more quickly find out what's going on.

Cleveland resident Lanisha Bowen said during a discussion at the West Side meeting that her grandfather has acted out in a way that could be seen as a mental health crisis, even though he is diabetic and just had low blood sugar.

Kathleen Clegg, director of community and public psychiatry and the public academic liaison program at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and a member of the Community Police Commission, also suggested the policies incorporate language about looking for signs of an overdose or other medical condition.

These suggestions also dovetailed with conversations about cultural sensitivity and suggestions that female officers respond to calls for females in crisis, or that black officers handle the calls of black residents who need help.