BILLINGS - Millions of people across the United States are affected by mental illness.
But only a fraction know and understand the weight of a mental health crisis.
It’s a serious medical situation, but often it's not a medical professional these individuals encounter during those first crucial moments, it's a police officer.
In a state with one of the highest suicide rates, it's critical they know how to handle the situation with caution, care, and most importantly, understanding.
That is why the Billings Police Department implements the Crisis Intervention Team program, or CIT.
Officers learn to identify a mental health crisis, strategies to deescalate the situation and how to help.
Starting four years ago, all new Billings police officers are required to go through a condensed version of the program before their first day on the job.
They're then given the option to attend a 40-hour week of training later in the year.
Of the department's 150 or so officers, 65 have attended the CIT academy.
“It really teaches you just to listen to people, and ultimately come to a solution,” said David Woody, an officer with the Billings Police Department.
Woody is new to the Billings Police Department and just completed his training and had his first day on the job on Tuesday.
“It was something that I haven’t really thought about as much, but it’s really important,” Woody said.
CIT is a training tool officers utilize often.
"More and more has been put on police officer's and police department's shoulders to handle certain crises throughout the city," said Officer Phil Tanis with the Billings Police Department.
Tanis is also a CIT instructor and downtown resource officer for the Downtown Billings Alliance.
Due to his location downtown, Tanis frequently encounters community members living with a mental illness.
“Ranging from something as minor anxiety, to, you know, schizophrenia, 25 to 30 percent of every person in this country has that, has some type of mental illness. So think about how you would like your family member to be treated by a police officer, or by any provider,” Tanis said.
Nationally, the public opinion of police encounters isn't always positive.
But because of CIT, the Billings community only sees a small percentage of situations that escalate.
“A lot of the calls for service, I’d say 99% of these calls, go completely unnoticed to the common eye of the average citizen. You know, our officers are doing a great job of de-escalating these individuals, getting to that safe solution, and doing it without anybody ever noticing, maybe a neighbor or two,” Tanis said.
Billings police responded to 1,478 suicide intervention calls in 2020, averaging about 4 a day.
Each situation is delicate, and various strategies are used for the best solution.
“So that allows you, not only to build that repour with that individual, but also allows them to deescalate and make them feel like they’re listened to and then you can go from there to an officer driven solution, which sometimes it does require a mental health hold at the hospital so they can speak with someone with billings clinic’s PACT team, and sometimes it’s simply assisting them in setting them up an appointment the next day with their own behavioral health provider,” Tanis said.
“The CIT training, I think, has really helped them understand what mental illness is,” said Mary Karen Marek, a volunteer with the Billings National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
“I initially became involved with NAMI probably 20 years ago. I have a brother who lives with mental illness, and my family and I were really struggling with, what’s going on,” Marek said.
NAMI was a major part of creating the CIT program.
Now retired, Marek is still committed to helping those with mental illness, and their families.
“It’s one way to advocate, not just for him, but for other people,” Marek said when talking about her brother.
Officers face an extra challenge on a crisis intervention call when the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“I think the people that you see, that have substances on board, are doing it to help, just deal with what’s going on. My brother was in warm springs a couple of years ago, and I met with the psychiatrist and the social worker, and he was using pot to help him at that point, and not the anti-psychotic medication,” Marek said.
At that moment, it’s the officer's job to take everyone's reality, even though the impairment and crisis, to work towards a solution.
However, CIT isn’t always foolproof.
“As much as we want it to work every single time, we need compliance from the individual in a mental health crisis. And sometimes those crises are so intense, that it does require a, hopefully, just soft restraint uses of force, and sometimes it escalates even to more than that,” Tanis said.
It comes to an extreme when other lives are at stake.
“This individual is trying to hurt themselves or others, and they need to take action, immediately, or else another citizen is in danger,” Tanis said.
Like any other program, there’s always room for improvement and growth.
To improve its response, the Billings Police Department is working with a grant that would allow them to create a co-responder model, where a mental health provider responds to crisis calls alongside officers.
“Because sometimes, simply having an officer with a badge, is so intimidating that an individual doesn’t feel comfortable connecting with us, which is understandable,” Tanis said.
Despite good efforts, Marek believes a deficit in our area is keeping those with mental illness from getting the treatment they truly need.
“We don’t have a lot of providers to provide the help. I mean, the officers are limited in what they can do. We don’t have case management, you know, psychiatrists are few and far between,” Marek said.
She sees an opportunity in an upcoming public safety levy that would give the Billings Police Department what it needs.
“I just feel the size, where Billings is going population-wise, and, what’s happening with the culture around the United States, it’s very obvious. We need to give them all the training we can, and we need to give them all the people, all the cops.”
And because the department needs more officers, even if an officer is interested in the CIT academy, it doesn’t guarantee them a spot.
Tight staffing prevents the department from sending all interested officers through the 40-hour course.
“You know, the whole term for law enforcement is ‘serve and protect’ right? And that’s what we want to do, we want to serve the community and we want to protect them and keep them safe, and we want to do that to the best of our ability as often as possible,” Tanis said.
You can read more about the levy here.
If you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis, a CIT-certified police officer can be requested when calling 9-1-1.