Opelika’s CIT program: A new model for policing

Published 10:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2023

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VALLEY — Chief Shane Healey and Officer Chase Higgins of the Opelika Police Department were guest speakers at the Monday meeting of the Valley Lions Club. They discussed a program underway in Opelika that is widely seen as a model for law enforcement agencies throughout the east central Alabama region. 

Several years ago, the Alabama Legislature cut back on the state’s support of the mentally ill. This left law enforcement holding the bag with little choice other than to lock up those struggling with mental issues. Most of these individuals are nonviolent but exhibit behavior that could place themselves and others around them in potentially dangerous situations.

Several years ago, Healey recalled a situation when he and other officers responded to an incident on the interstate where a half-naked man hopped around in hazardous traffic shouting, “The bunnies are loose. The bunnies are loose.”

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The deranged man meant no harm to anyone, but his actions could have killed him and caused multiple vehicles to collide on I-85. The individual taken into custody that day needed help from mental health professionals and perhaps a stay in a local hospital.

The lack of mental health crisis centers in Alabama and many other states has resulted in law enforcement agencies serving as first responders in most crisis situations. What’s known as a crisis intervention team, or CIT, is widely seen as a possible answer. A crisis intervention team is an innovative, community-based approach proven to improve outcomes in crisis encounters.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), more than 2,700 communities nationwide have CIT programs creating connections between law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services, and individuals with mental issues and their families. Through collaborative community partnerships and intensive training, CIT improves communication, identifies mental health resources for those in crisis, and ensures officer and community safety.

“This program is amazing,” Major T.J. Wood of the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office said, introducing Healey and Higgins. “We sent our entire department to go through such training in Opelika.”

Higgins is a CIT officer and instructor with OPD. 

“I owe a lot to Chief Healey,” he said. “He has given younger officers a chance to have ownership over programs like CIT.”

Opelika police have developed good working relationships with counselors with East Alabama Mental Health and the East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC).

Higgins explained how crisis training is vital for police officers. 

“Without CIT training, an officer can exacerbate an already delicate situation if it involves someone who is mentally ill,” he said.

Higgins cited one situation in Opelika where a mentally ill person was wandering across four-lane traffic trying to get into cars driven by people they didn’t know. 

“You can arrest them for disorderly conduct, but they will be out of jail that same day,” he said.

He said departments can’t be isolated in their own silo in situations like this. They have to work cooperatively with other departments, those with expertise working with mentally ill people. 

“You have to have a comprehensive plan,” Higgins said. “It’s estimated that one out of every eight people will have some form of mental illness in their lifetime. In some cases, their illness will bring them into conflict with the police. It’s important to have a system in place should this happen to your family member and they come into contact with police.”

Chief Healey said the most important thing he has learned in 32 years of law enforcement is that police officers are seen as problem solvers. 

“They don’t call us when things are going well,” he said. “They call us when they have some kind of problem, and they want somebody to fix it. When I started work in law enforcement in Alabama, we had a robust mental health system in the state. That went away. Guess who gets called now when someone is struggling with a mental health issue? How do we address this? At first, all we could do was to put people in jail, and that’s not where they needed to be. Being in jail does not help them get out of the crisis they are going through. I knew we needed to be creative in finding a solution.”

Healey said that having a CIT program has positively affected people’s lives. He likes to look at the Opelika program as an example for other law enforcement departments to follow.

He commended Higgins for his role with CIT. 

“Chase is passionate about this,” he said. “He helped a friend of mine who had a substance abuse problem. Helping people is what this program is all about. It’s a means of bringing the proper resources together to get people the help they need. We want more people to know about what we are doing and that CIT will work in your community as well.”

Higgins said a person in crisis is similar to the proverbial situation when a person is standing on a ledge working up the courage to jump. 

“People with East Alabama Mental Health are fantastic in getting people off that ledge,” he said. “When that’s done, it’s a matter of connecting the dots in getting the right treatment for them.”

Drugs, both illegal and legal kind, are often involved in mental health cases. If substance abuse is involved, it’s a matter of getting the individual off of addiction. It’s seldom easy, but it needs to be done. If their meds have become ineffective, a different regimen might be in order. 

“We need to know if there’s a gap in substance abuse and the medications they are supposed to be taking,” Higgins said.

“We need officers who are understanding of this when we take it to the that,” Healey said.

CIT programs like the one in Opelika have not only been very effective in bringing community leaders together, they have helped keep people with mental illness out of jail and in treatment on the road to recovery. In effect, CIT is a diversion program that reduces arrests while increasing the likelihood that people needing mental health services will receive them. 

CIT is also good for the officers. Studies have shown that officers trained in CIT are far less likely to be injured when dealing with someone experiencing a mental illness-related incident.

Another factor to consider is that incarceration is costly compared to community-based treatment. For example, a study in a large Midwestern city found that keeping an inmate who is mentally ill in jail for a year will cost over $30,000. By contrast, keeping them in a community-based program will cost only around $10,000 a year.

Healey said that it’s quite common for OPD to receive calls that are in some way related to people being mentally ill. 

Records show that over one three-month period in Opelika, approximately 65 such calls came in. The same is likely true for any other similar-sized city.

“CIT is one of the most powerful options we have in dealing with this,” he said.