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.”
Crisis Intervention Training
CIT commander and police Capt. Jeff Pierce said Oklahoma City police work with the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; the National Alliance on Mental Illness; police in Midwest City, Edmond, Norman and Moore; Oklahoma County sheriff's department; and community mental health providers to train metro-area officers.
“This program is so entrenched now with the police department and this community that we actually have family members and people that are being treated for long-term mental health issues, that when there is a crisis and they call 911, they actually ask for a CIT officer. They know these officers understand their certain situations,” Pierce said.
“Sometimes the CIT officers working will recognize those addresses and they will volunteer to go there because they have dealt with those people time and time again,” he said.
“One of the things we teach at the school, and it is an absolute necessity, is patience, because most of the time, these kinds of calls do not reach a successful resolution in 5 or 10 minutes,” Pierce said. “And it wouldn't be unusual for an officer to stay out there for a couple of hours with somebody.”
Officers apply to become CIT members and wear CIT epaulets on the shoulders of their uniforms as a way to be identified by the community.
The department has allocated money for 140 police officers to be CIT-trained. Right now, the force includes 133, Pierce said.
When Nooner went through the Oklahoma City police academy about 16 years ago, mental health training consisted of the cadets watching a VHS tape that hadn't been updated in years. Now, all cadets get 16 hours of mental health training, 11 hours more than mandated by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training.
“We work really, really hard to give them the best service possible. It has become part of our job responsibility,” Nooner said.
Officers responded to 7,406 911 calls relating to mental illness from January through September this year.
“I remember when I first got on, the big push was domestic calls,” Nooner said. “Well, right now, it has become, ‘You won't go a shift without dealing with a mental health call.' Some kind of mental illness, some kind of situation is going to present itself and you're going to be expected to help them out.”
Police records show 159 early deaths associated with mental illness have been reported this year through the end of September.
These are deaths of people aged 65 and younger where officers find mental health medications in the home or are told by family members or medical professionals that the person suffered from a mental illness, Pierce said.
“It's just one of those issues where nobody really wants to talk about it. It's kind of one of those where a lot of people are not comfortable talking about,” Pierce said.
“It's not a pretty situation to see, but this is the reality of it.”
The CIT program now is being taught statewide, Pierce said.
“We partnered with state mental health on this training, and something that has happened in the last couple years is that we have applied and were accepted for a joint grant to take the CIT training all over the state of Oklahoma,” Pierce said.
So far, Oklahoma City instructors have used the funding to teach CIT schools in Enid and Broken Arrow. A third school is scheduled in McAlester in December.
More than 900 police officers statewide have been trained in CIT, Pierce said.