Officers, others trained to handle mentally ill in crisis

In the seven months since the Maui Police Department started its Crisis Intervention Team, specially trained officers have responded to at least 66 police calls involving mentally ill people in crisis.

A second round of training that ended Aug. 9 produced 19 graduates, including additional patrol officers and sergeants as well as a state social worker and a hospital security guard.

With the expansion of the training to other professionals, “It’s going to make the community stronger, I think,” said Dr. Dara Rampersad, Maui County forensic coordinator for the state Adult Mental Health Division.

Rampersad worked with MPD to establish the training and create the team, the first for a police department in the state.

After completing the 40-hour training earlier this month, Arman Molina said that he learned techniques to better approach and communicate with the mentally ill patients he encounters daily in his job as a sergeant with the Maui Memorial Medical Center security department.

“You got to be open when approaching them – rather than being judgmental, taking the time and effort,” said Molina, who works the graveyard shift at the hospital five days a week.

Both he and Lance Toyoshima, a social worker at the state Maui Community Mental Health Center, said that strategies to de-escalate situations could be used as well in daily life.

“This is good for everybody in everyday life, not just dealing with patients,” Molina said.

After first learning about mental illness diagnoses and ways of handling situations, training participants heard from professionals and family members of people suffering from mental illness. Participants also visited the Molokini psychiatric ward at the hospital, as well as community mental health programs.

Toward the end of the training, participants acted out mock scenarios drawn from real-life cases that professionals have encountered on the street or at the hospital, Rampersad said.

“We teach officers not to take things personally,” Rampersad said. “We get a fair amount of abuse when folks are ill, but the folks aren’t intentionally trying to be that way.”

In Maui County, about 1,200 people have been identified as having severe mental illness, Rampersad said, though others may suffer from less serious mental health problems.

“We have such a diverse range of clients,” said Toyoshima, who has been in his job for a few months after previously working as a probation officer.

“This is really helpful. It gives us a better understanding of why behavior is one way and what their thought process might be. They are not processing like we are.”

Rampersad said that 34 police officers who work in the field and two police dispatchers are now trained as Crisis Intervention Team members. They include officers in all patrol districts on Maui, as well as on Molokai and Lanai.

When police respond to calls such as disorderly conduct or trespassing that involve mentally ill people in crisis, a team member also can be dispatched to the scene if one is working and available. The officers wear pins and patches designating them as CIT members.

Since the first officers were deployed for the team in late January, there have been 66 documented cases where they intervened, Rampersad said. He said that the number of actual CIT interventions was higher, estimating there have been at least 90 interventions.

“There was no use of force necessary in any of them,” Rampersad said. “As far as I can see, nobody has been arrested post-intervention.”

He said that fewer than 1 percent of those who had contact with CIT officers were arrested in later cases.

“Their interactions are preventing future interactions from happening,” Rampersad said.

With the increase in trained officers, he expects CIT officers to intervene in more of the three to four cases a day involving people in a mental health crisis.

The officers could be called to try to help defuse some of the approximately 20 suicide attempts a month countywide, Rampersad said. He said about two suicides a month occur in the county.

“When you have folks trained to get people down from the situation, it goes a long way,” Rampersad said.

With officers familiar with procedures and hospital psychiatric nurses, the waiting time for officers who accompany mental health patients to the emergency room has been reduced from four or five hours to no more than 30 minutes in most cases, Rampersad said.

During the recent training, some family members of patients said they were thankful for the way officers handled situations by treating people with respect, said officer Surendar Singh of the MPD Plans, Training, Research and Development Section.

“You get a tear-jerking moment,” Singh said. “They’re seeing the difference now that the CIT officers are on the road and how much they’re appreciated.”

“Hopefully, the consumers see a difference as well and they can call for a CIT officer if there’s one available,” Rampersad said. “And hopefully they will be treated with dignity and compassion.”

Most of the training costs have been paid through a state block grant funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

If the funding continues, Singh said that additional officers and other community members could undergo the training.

“Mental health issues are not a Maui Police Department issue only,” she said. “It’s a community issue.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at