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On the morning of November 6, two D.C. police officers responded to the home of David Kerstetter. The door to Mr. Kerstetter’s condo had been been busted open. It looked suspicious. So the police were called. The officers were eventually confronted with a very simple scene: Mr. Kerstetter in his bedroom, allegedly holding a knife.
This scene turned into the police-involved shooting death of Mr. Kerstetter.
The Kerstetter shooting remains under investigation. But decades ago, in Memphis, another mid-size city, a similar scenario sparked outrage, political turmoil, a task force, and ultimately some real change. That same man-with-knife scenario ended up spurring major reforms within the Memphis Police Department. Those reforms have since become models for the rest of the country’s police departments.
In 1987, Memphis cops were called to a scene involving a mentally-ill man wielding a knife. “Our department received a call from this individual’s family members that this individual had a mental illness,” recalls Maj. Sam Cochran, “armed with a very large knife, cutting himself and he was threatening family members and neighbors.” Cochran says that after a brief encounter, police shot the man multiple times. The man died.
The shooting was ruled justified. But it still felt wrong.
“Many felt the Memphis Police Department should have done more,” Cochran says. “It was a very unsettling time for our community. Got lots of criticism. The mayor saw that our community was hurting and the department was hurting. [The mayor] set up a task force to come up with a plan to provide safety for all and what would best work.”
“In addition to training the rank-and-file cops, the department selected officers to undergo an additional 40-hour training session. These officers became mental health crisis specialists operating much like a SWAT or vice squad.
Instead of diffusing a hostage situation or nabbing corner dealers, CIT cops specialize in taking care of the bipolar teenager in the midst of a manic episode. When such a call comes in, at least one CIT officer is dispatched to head up the case. With trained personnel on the scene, the outcome is less often a night in jail followed by arraignment and more often a call to a social worker or psychiatrist.”
The CIT model is significant in a number of ways:
*It recognizes that not all officers are the same. Some have a natural empathy towards a resident in a mental-health crisis and some do not.
*It works hand-in-hand with various community organizations so that residents are taken to treatment and not a jail cell. Community groups have bought into the program.
*Officers volunteer to enroll in the program. But before they were accepted, they are carefully vetted. They are interviewed and their personnel file is reviewed.
*Officers are given a 40-hour training on the CIT program. Once they graduate, they are then on-call to handle cases like Mr. Kerstetters.
Maj. Tim Canady, the current CIT-coordinator in Memphis, says the reason the program has been successful is because the officers are trained in verbal de-escalation skills, know how to come up with an action plan for various police calls, and can call in the clinical, social-service side once they assess the scene.
What should you take from all this? The Memphis Police Department is not flying blind when they come to a scene like the one at Mr. Kerstetter’s home.
The question remains: Does the D.C. Police Department know what to do when faced with a resident in crisis? Do they have a plan? If so, did they follow that plan when they entered Mr. Kerstetter’s home? And why aren’t city politicians talking reforms?