Following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, there were predictable demands for gun control, any kind of gun control, no matter how unlikely that it would have prevented them. What went unremarked-upon is something proven to prevent individuals with severe mental illnesses from committing crimes: crisis intervention team (CIT) training for police officers.
Prior to the shootings, the gunman, Aaron Alexis, pleaded with the police for help. He told Newport, Rhode Island police officers that two men and a woman were talking to him through the walls, floor, and ceiling of the Newport Marriott hotel. He‘d never actually seen the three individuals, but he was convinced that they’d been sent by a man he’d argued with at a Virginia airport before boarding a flight to Rhode Island.
Alexis said the three already had driven him out of two other hotels that night. They were preventing him from sleeping by using “some sort of microwave machine” to send microwave vibrations into his body. He was afraid that they were going to hurt him.
If Alexis had told the police that he thought he was having a heart attack, he would have been rushed to the nearest hospital. But because Alexis was showing symptoms “only” of paranoia and schizophrenia, the police advised him to “stay away” from the three individuals. They were imaginary to the police, but they were real and terrifying to Alexis. Instead of trying to get Alexis the treatment he needed, the police concluded: “No further action was required.”
CIT training was started by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 following public outcry over the fatal police shooting of a man with a severe mental illness. Working in partnership with the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental health care providers, and two local universities, the Memphis police developed a program to train officers to recognize signs of mental illness and deal with individuals in crisis. Officers are trained to de-escalate tense situations and help them get treatment.
Research has shown that CIT training significantly reduces injuries to police officers responding to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis and the individuals involved. CIT-trained police officers help individuals with a mental illness obtain proper treatment and save taxpayers money because treatment is far less costly than incarceration.