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Oklahoma City police have special training for dealing with mental health issues

Patience is a key component when dealing with people who suffer from severe mental illnesses, said Oklahoma City police Capt. Jeff Pierce. The police department has 133 Crisis Intervention Training officers and has shared the CIT program with more than 900 police officers across the state.
BY LEIGHANNE MANWARREN Published: October 20, 2013

Police officers patrolling downtown Oklahoma City told Staff Sgt. Corey Nooner nothing could be done to help the homeless woman they regularly encountered on the streets.

They said she was too mean and aggressive to receive his help. She had been in and out of the Oklahoma County jail.

But Nooner — who received special training to deal with the severely mentally ill — wanted to try to help her.

He drove to a corner where the woman was known to frequent and got out of his patrol car. The woman was apprehensive as the uniformed officer tried to make conversation with her.

After about 20 minutes, Nooner drove away. He called local mental health providers to determine a game plan for how to approach her again.

In subsequent visits, Nooner learned the woman had delusional thoughts and believed she was pregnant.

“That bumped up the priority for us, because she was living on the streets. She thought she was pregnant, but then she would tell you that she wasn't pregnant,” Nooner said.

Nooner and a mental health care worker convinced her to go to a hospital and doctors determined that she was pregnant. After a second hospital visit, she was placed into a long-term mental health care facility. That was four years ago.

“That's kind of the weird part about what we do. We get them to the resources and once they are entered into the system, we kind of just lose track of them,” Nooner said. “We kind of just hope for the best and go down the road, but I can tell you I haven't seen her downtown again.”

A changed approach

Nooner has been a crisis intervention training (CIT) member since the department started the training program in 2002, which was modeled after the Memphis CIT program.

The specialized, 40-hour training includes a crash course on psychiatric disorders and medications, and the legal aspects of mental illness. Participants talk with people affected by mental illness and with mental health providers. They visit mental health facilities and role play real-life situations.

The training program wasn't in place Dec. 14, 2000, when three Oklahoma City officers were sent to the apartment of a former Roman Catholic priest who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Paul Hight grabbed a knife and told police officers to leave his apartment. One officer — fearing for his safety and the safety of the other officers — shot and killed him.

“When he was on his medication, he was the greatest guy in the world. You couldn't find a better individual than Paul,” said his brother Joe Hight, a former editor at The Oklahoman.

Hight suspects his brother did not get his medication and that led to the deadly confrontation with police.

After his brother's death, Hight met with local mental health care advocates, the Oklahoma City police chief and other law enforcement officials.

Through these conversations, he began to develop a better understanding of the issues surrounding mental illness and the community, Hight said.

Today there is much better understanding of the issue of mental illness and its causes and effects, but the stigma still exists, he said.

“I think that's where we need more understanding. If you look at statistics, a quarter of the population suffers from mental illness, and yet it is not an issue that is widely discussed,” Hight said.

“There has to be a constant emphasis on communication and training and there has to be a constant discussion about these issues to overcome the fear and stigma that still exists today,” he said.

“There has been a lot of progress made since my brother died — extreme amount of progress made in a lot of different areas — but if the communication and the training stop, that all goes away. If law enforcement and those in judicial branches don't continue to communicate with those who work in the field who are advocates, if they don't work together and they don't form bridges, problems exist again.”

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