Because successful CIT implementation depends on the coordination of various units, each entity must be capable of effectively identifying situations involving a person with a mental illness who is in crisis. Emergency dispatchers, call-takers, and 911 operators are critical links in the CIT program (Dupont et al., 2007
). These individuals are the first line of communication in emergency calls involving individuals with a mental illness and therefore potentially set the overall tone of the situation. Thus, they should be adequately trained to recognize such calls and route them appropriately. Training for dispatchers or “communications officers” varies and is based on local and state requirements and opportunities (Brown, A., personal communication, January 27, 2009). Dispatchers need to be trained to evaluate calls by asking key questions of callers and reporting the right information to the most appropriate emergency response personnel. Given the importance of dispatch personnel for the overall functioning of a CIT program, they should be included in the initial planning stages of CIT implementation.
Although it is obvious that the dispatch sector represents a crucial link in the success of a CIT program, a number of challenges can be present in addressing this component of CIT. How can dispatchers be included in CIT training classes when the priority is often the training of law enforcement officers? What should be done to the existing CIT curriculum, or in the development of a new curriculum, to ensure that it is relevant to dispatchers? What are the best ways to make dispatch personnel aware of such training and facilitate their attendance in light of staffing issues? Beyond training, what relatively simple policies can ensure that dispatchers are able to link callers with appropriate response personnel? In what ways should CIT evaluation and research address the dispatch sector? Each of these questions, representing a potential barrier to fulfillment of the core elements of CIT, is addressed below.
The CIT core elements (Dupont et al., 2007
) include a component focusing specifically on dispatchers, which entails specialized coursework detailing the structure of CIT and how to properly receive and dispatch calls involving individuals with a mental illness. However, some CIT programs are being implemented without such specialized coursework (Strode, P., personal communication, December 28, 2009). Although a variety of professionals and volunteers from multiple disciplines work collaboratively to develop and sustain an effective CIT program, the training component is managed by law enforcement professionals (Oliva & Compton, 2008
) and the demand for law enforcement officers to attend CIT training is generally considered a first priority; hence, the sending of dispatchers to training is usually contingent on the availability of space (Cochran, S., personal communication, January 28, 2009). In recent years, trainings are including more dispatchers, and the CIT curriculum should become more relevant to dispatchers and encompass more issues important to their work. Therefore, dispatchers should be involved in the development of CIT curricula. When dispatchers are present in the 40-hour training provided to police officers, simulated phone calls and more role-play scenarios have been included to make training more relevant and engaging (Strode, P., personal communication, December 28, 2009). Many law enforcement agencies are now making serious efforts to bring communications personnel into CIT training or similar educational sessions (Cochran, S., personal communication, January 28, 2009).
Separate curricula could be developed for dispatch personnel rather than sending them through the officers’ 40-hour training week. The Georgia affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-Georgia) is in the initial stages of developing plans to increase dispatch training in Georgia’s CIT programs, as well as training for other emergency medical service personnel (Strode, P., personal communication, December 28, 2009). A model is being developed to deliver 20 hours of training for dispatchers, including 10 hours online and 10 hours in the traditional classroom setting. Another way to provide dispatch training is through in-service training, which is the current modality used in the Memphis CIT program (Cochran, S., personal communication, January 28, 2009). These shortened versions of CIT training appear to be more appropriate for dispatch personnel from a curriculum/content perspective and might also facilitate their ability to attend training in light of their time commitment and potential staffing shortages.
In addition to the absence of an appropriate curriculum, another barrier to training dispatch personnel is making them aware of such training and facilitating their attendance. In Georgia, state law enforcement CIT coordinators facilitate communications with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that all pertinent organizations are notified and involved in the training (Oliva & Compton, 2008
). Nonetheless, in many municipalities, dispatchers are insufficiently involved in CIT training. The use of the Law Enforcement Technical (LET) and similar media has been suggested as a mechanism to make dispatchers more aware of CIT (Strode, P., personal communication, December 28, 2009). LET is a monthly magazine written for sworn members of law enforcement management that concentrates on emerging trends and technological advances in the field of law enforcement. It focuses on companies that provide products in categories such as computers and software, uniforms and body armor, communications aids, vehicles, weaponry, forensics tools, tactical equipment, and video imaging products (http://www.officer.com/magazines/let/
, retrieved 2010).
Many municipalities simply do not have the staffing resources necessary to allow dispatch personnel to be absent for 40 hours of training. Sending dispatchers to the week-long training can be particularly difficult for small departments. The absence of communications personnel at such training places many, if not most, agencies in a position of hardship (Cochran, S., personal communication, January 28, 2009).
A few months after the initial implementation of their CIT program, the Akron, Ohio Police Department realized that training for their dispatchers had been overlooked (Woody, M., personal communication, January 11, 2010). To address the shortage of staffing, Lieutenant Michael Woody, then Director of Training for the Akron Police Department, developed an abbreviated, four-hour, introductory course specifically designed for dispatchers. The CIT program in Summit County, Ohio now includes the facilitation of dispatch training, which can accommodate six dispatchers per class. Teller and colleagues (2006)
examined the average number of mental disturbance calls per month over a 6-year period and found that in the years following CIT implementation in Akron, Ohio, the number and proportion of calls involving persons with a suspected mental illness increased. The authors suggested that dispatcher training increased awareness and improved assessment of such calls (Teller, Munetz, Gil, & Ritter, 2006
). Another remedy for the staffing concern—at least for municipalities with an established CIT program—is to include training about CIT in the initial training of new dispatchers before
they actually begin working.
After dispatchers have received CIT training, a number of simple policies could be implemented to facilitate their involvement in the overall CIT program. A video recently produced by the Ohio Criminal Justice Coordinating Center of Excellence depicts a dispatcher receiving a call from an individual with a mental illness who is in crisis; the dispatcher scans a list of psychiatric medications to determine whether the individual may have a psychiatric disorder based on his reported medications (Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine & Pharmacy Department of Academic Technology Services, 2009). The list of medications shown in the training video and other simple tools could be used by dispatchers to elicit information from callers so that such calls can be directed appropriately.
Another possible measure to improve the role of dispatcher in a CIT program is to flag on dispatchers’ daily rosters the names of officers who are CIT-trained (Strode, P., personal communication, December 28, 2009). Although rosters usually denote the various qualifications of on-duty officers, not all jurisdictions indicate whether an officer is CIT-trained. To add such an important qualification to the daily roster has the potential to make a difference in the outcome of calls involving people with mental illnesses.
More evaluation and research is needed to thoroughly address the aforementioned issues regarding dispatch training and increasing their involvement with CIT. Although studies have examined the officer-level effects of CIT training in terms of knowledge, attitudes, self-efficacy, and stigma (Bahora, Hanafi, Chien, & Compton, 2008
; Compton, Bahora, Watson, & Oliva, 2008
; Compton & Chien, 2008
; Compton, Esterberg, McGee, Kotwicki, & Oliva, 2006
; Demir, Broussard, Goulding, & Compton, 2009
; Hanafi, Bahora, Demir, & Compton, 2008
), no studies have explored the potential barriers to successful CIT implementation from the dispatch perspective. Such research should likely begin with qualitative designs that elicit reports of successes and challenges from dispatch personnel and their supervisors.
Future research should address a number of questions pertaining to dispatch involvement in CIT. Following implementation of dispatch training and formal dispatch protocols, does the number and nature of CIT calls dispatched change? Do law enforcement agencies that have incorporated these measures into their CIT programs report better program outcomes (i.e., fewer injuries, fewer use-of-force incidents, less recidivism) than agencies that have not incorporated these dispatch-related measures?