Centre County police are responding to more mental health calls. Is their training enough?

How CIT training helps police handle a mental health crisis

Centre County Crisis Intervention Team graduated another set of officers and emergency responders on June 28, 2019. Officers interact with people with mental health issues everyday, and this training helps the interactions go smoothly.
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Centre County Crisis Intervention Team graduated another set of officers and emergency responders on June 28, 2019. Officers interact with people with mental health issues everyday, and this training helps the interactions go smoothly.

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Mental Health on Centre

In Centre County, there has been a dramatic increase in “302” mental health warrants. In March 2019, 29-year-old State College resident Osaze Osagie was shot and killed while police officers attempted to serve one of those warrants, sparking controversy across the community. “Mental health on Centre,” an ongoing series from the Centre Daily Times, explores how the mental health system is helping or hurting community members.

Despite relatively low crime rates, Centre County police departments are responding to an increasing amount of calls involving a mental health crisis.

Since the county implemented crisis intervention training for those situations in 2011, the volume of CIT increased by 194% in 2018. In that first year, there were 195 crisis intervention team calls, with the volume ballooning to 574 in 2018, second only to 2017, when there were 677 CIT calls, according to data provided by Centre County CIT coordinator Tracy Small.

In 2019, there have been 285 CIT calls between January and June, meaning the county is on pace for 570 calls.

One of those CIT calls was for State College resident Osaze Osagie on March 20. The 29-year-old with a history of schizophrenia was shot and killed by borough police officers who were attempting to serve a “302” warrant, an involuntary commitment to a hospital for evaluation that police are legally required to serve.

Since Osagie’s death, some residents have questioned what the extent of the police’s role should be in those interactions.

“I think that there are places in which the community, who are concerned, and the police, who are forced to respond to these 302s — there’s common space in there,” said Millheim resident Melanie Morrison, of the recently formed 3.20 Coalition. “I think the assumption is that people calling for reform are anti-police and that’s not necessarily true. We want everybody to be safe and there are things that can be done and I think that we could work together to make these things happen so that the community and the police alike could be safer in these situations.”

In Bellefonte, about 50% of calls received by borough police are for criminal activity, while the remaining 50% are calls for service, like medical emergencies, rescuing ducklings from a drain or serving a “302” warrant. It’s “small-town policing,” police Chief Shawn Weaver said.

“Something unique to Centre County and to the Centre Region is the fact that we have big-city crime here, but on such a smaller scale that we can focus on quality-of-life issues,” Patton Township police Chief Tyler Jolley said. “I think it’s why people cherish living here. We can focus on quality-of-life issues that bigger cities wouldn’t even touch.”

That focus includes the mental health system, which Jolley said has become a larger and more prevalent issue for police during his 17 years at the department.

In Centre County, about 85% of municipal police officers and 98% of full-time, sworn Penn State police officers at University Park have received CIT training, according to data provided by each of the departments. About 10% of state police troopers in the patrol unit at Rockview have received the training, according to spokesmen Ryan Tarkowski and trooper Brent Miller.

Training is prevalent, but comes at a cost

Data collected by the Washington Post shows that, as of 9 a.m. July 11, police nationwide have fatally shot 80 people this year who — like Osagie — were in the midst of a mental health crisis.

According to the Post’s data, nearly 25% of 4,414 deadly police shootings since 2015 involved someone with a mental illness.

That rate, according to a 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center — a nonprofit that studies topics related to mental health — means the odds of being killed during a police encounter are 16 times higher for those with untreated mental illness when compared to the general public.

A common thread found in the data, according to The Post, is that police were responding to those situations without adequate training.

The county’s 40-hour CIT training — which State College police Chief John Gardner called the “gold standard for law enforcement” — aims to improve interactions between police and those with mental illness, prevent unnecessary incarceration, reduce injury and link individuals with appropriate treatment and community resources.

The training starts with a heavy focus on mental health symptoms to be aware of and services provided by the county’s mental health office.

De-escalation techniques, speaking with veterans about post-traumatic stress disorder, officer wellness, suicide by cop and speaking about scenarios that happened in Centre County are also aspects of the training, Small said.

But the “ah ha” moment is when trainees are introduced to those with mental illness at Strawberry Fields. Officers arrive in plain clothes and explain their policies — like why handcuffing is necessary — and listen to those with mental illness, Small said.

Trainees are also given a CD player with earbuds that play “voices” while they are required to go through different tasks, like a job interview or answering a phone call to show that individuals with auditory hallucinations “can’t just turn it off,” Small said.

Centre County Crisis Intervention Team coordinator Tracy Small congratulates a Penn State Police officer at a training graduation on June 28. Within Penn State police, 98% of full-time, sworn officers at University Park have received CIT training. Abby Drey

Police chiefs touted the training, though Spring Township police Chief Mike Danneker — who heads an eight-man department — said it can be “very devastating” to pull an officer for training. Three officers have received CIT training, Danneker said.

“It’s not completely feasible (to train more), no,” Danneker said. “We have our limitations. If we surpass those limitations, then there is an effect somewhere else. And that would be loss of coverage or double the expense of the training itself because now I’m paying somebody time and a half to work overtime to fill shifts. It’s a balancing act.”

Ferguson Township police Chief Chris Albright estimated upward of 25% of an officer’s yearly work total can be spent either training or on some form of leave, like vacation or sick days.

“I think Centre County, by far, exceeds a lot of other places of our size in the training aspect,” Danneker said. “How far can we go before it becomes a degree? I think we’re on the right page in getting us to a base level where I feel confident that an officer can go and — given the opportunity — help de-escalate and get people the services they need.”

Potential solutions lack quick answers

The 3.20 Coalition — named in honor of the date Osagie was fatally shot — has spearheaded community efforts aimed at making improvements to the systems members believe failed him, so his death doesn’t go through the metamorphosis that many police shootings do — shock, outrage, fatigue and disengagement.

Morrison is a member of the group’s leadership committee and said she does not believe that police should be solely responsible for serving “302” warrants, though she acknowledges police will almost always have some involvement.

“What we would like to see as the community is a mental health professional who would work along with police to respond to these 302s,” Morrison said. “We kind of already have seen that with the professionals working with the police department regarding sexual assault and domestic violence, so reworking that for a mental health professional to responds to 302s is something we are curious about.”

In State College, Gardner and Assistant Borough Manager of Public Safety Tom King said they’re interested in learning more about co-responder programs, which typically involve one police officer and one behavioral health specialist responding to mental health calls in tandem.

Those programs are becoming more common across the country and the borough is “watching closer now than ever” to evaluate a similar program’s feasibility in Centre County, King said.

Questions remain about how such a program is a funded, organized, sustained and how effective they are. Answers to those questions would come from a countywide task force if local police chiefs had their way, Gardner said.

State College police Chief John Gardner releases information and a timeline of a shooting that occurred on Jan. 24 in State College during a news conference. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

“I think that’s part of what we’d like to see a task force do. Take these ideas and not just implement something because someone had an idea. But to research it thoroughly — and I don’t mean taking years, I’m saying research it thoroughly in a relatively short period of time — and find the best practices that are happening across the country,” King said. “That research has to be done for it to be effective and to be sustainable over time. We can’t just take a quick idea and quickly just hire somebody and say ‘We’ve done it.’ That’d be the easy way out.”

King, who arrived at the police department in 1981 and is the former borough police chief, also acknowledged “police want the help” when it comes to the mental health system and serving 302 warrants during a community meeting in April. Jolley, along with other chiefs, were in attendance.


What's next?

This article is part of ongoing coverage into the gaps in the county and state’s mental health system and potential solutions. We’re looking for your input about where those gaps exist. Email to share stories, tips and information.

Who did we speak with?

For this story, we interviewed all five Centre County municipal police chiefs in addition to representatives from state police, Penn State police, the county crisis intervention team, state Department of Human Services and more. CDT journalists have been at community meetings that have been held since March, and interviewed a member of the 3.20 Coalition and various county officials, including the human services manager, county administrator and chairman of the board of commissioners.

“When Tom said that, I think every chief in there wholeheartedly agreed that if Natalie Corman comes in as the mental health administrator for the county and says, ‘You know what, from now on, we have this agency that we contracted with. They’re going to be responsible for serving all 302 warrants from now on; the police will not be involved in them.’ We would say, ‘OK. It’s all yours,’ “ Jolley said.

Police occasionally respond to mental health calls alongside Can Help caseworkers — primarily for security — but Gardner, King and Corman said they’re unaware of a policy that required the two agencies to respond together. Police serve 302 warrants independently.

Corman said she would need to have additional conversations with law enforcement to better understand potential changes.

“It’s going to take time,” Corman said about researching the efficacy of a co-responder program. “I would not say that’s going to be a very quick answer to that, but it is something that we’re looking at.”

‘Other states have done better’

The chiefs and Morrison are also in agreement that Pennsylvania’s mental health laws are among the most restrictive in the country.

In his 228-page report about the Osagie shooting, Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said a person must attempt harm to themselves or others, threaten suicide or take action on those threats within the previous 30 days to be considered for a 302 warrant.

“There is an ongoing debate between civil libertarians and health care advocacy groups regarding the dangerousness standard of civil commitments,” Cantorna wrote in his report. “The Osagie tragedy unfortunately thrusts Centre County into this debate and illustrates the challenges families face as a result of mental illness and Pennsylvania’s legal structure.”

The law was enacted in 1976 and amended several times throughout the years, with its two most significant changes coming in 1978 and 2018, state Department of Human Services press secretary Erin James said in an email.

“It’s almost to the point that someone has to deteriorate to a point where they are in full meltdown crisis mode before you can get anybody there,” Gardner said. “There’s a shortage of beds. There’s a shortage of treatment therapists. The funding is not there like it once was. It’s a combination of things. There’s no intermediate step.”

Added King: “The standard’s too high, clearly. In terms of how far deteriorated you have to be and how recent that deterioration has to have been in order to be able to take action against someone’s will. Other states have done better.”

A review of the law, including studying the success’ of other states in responding to mental health calls, is an idea supported by the municipal police chiefs.

“Centre County is fortunate to have a strong relationship with our mental health professionals,” Albright said. “The deficiency in our mental health system is not the collaboration between law enforcement and mental health; rather, it is the laws that govern what can be done to help someone in crisis.”

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.