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Back to Archives | Back to November 2011 Contents 

NAMI and Law Enforcement Executives: Working Together to Improve Police Responses to People with Mental Illness

By Laura Usher, Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Arlington, Virginia

he National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots organization of people living with mental illness and their families. NAMI served on the advisory group for the 2009 IACP National Policy Summit on improving responses to people with mental illness, and its staff and members were delighted to contribute to this effort. The IACP’s leadership on this issue has created greater momentum for outstanding community policing approaches to mental health crises.

NAMI has worked with communities across the country on the creation of crisis intervention teams (CITs): community programs that help law enforcement join forces with mental health providers and families to find a better way to resolve mental health crises. NAMI is ready to assist police executives in implementing the recommendations made in the 2009 IACP National Policy Summit report, Building Safer Communities: Improving Police Response to Persons with Mental Illness.1

Too frequently, people with mental illness do not receive needed treatment and are put in jail. NAMI leaders know that the criminalization of mental illness is a systemic problem and that it places burdens not just on families affected by mental illness, but on law enforcement officers and agencies. NAMI works directly with law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement professionals report that these calls for service take up a lot of time but rarely have a positive outcome. Police officers often say they are not trained to deal with mental health crises, and the mental health system does not respond when officers bring an individual to treatment.

IACP Past President Ronald Ruecker put a special emphasis on responding to children with mental illness, and NAMI also has made this a priority. In July 2011, NAMI released Responding to Youth with Mental Health Needs: A CIT for Youth Implementation Manual, which provides step-by-step guidance for local leaders on how to work together to help law enforcement better prepare to respond to children and youth with mental health conditions, in schools and the community.2 Many of the law enforcement officers NAMI works with state that they want to approach these situations with particular care and provide the best services possible to children and their families. Doing so can help to refocus a child’s life, help families cope with mental health conditions, and position the child for success in school and in life. By intervening early, CIT for Youth programs can help young people with mental health conditions stay in school and avoid involvement with the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems.

The CIT for Youth initiative is just one example of NAMI’s work with law enforcement on CITs. NAMI also has worked to expand the scope of CIT to other populations. For example, NAMI Maine and NAMI Indiana have led the way in creating CIT programs specifically for correctional officers. NAMI also has spread the word about ways that CIT can be adapted to address the needs of veterans.

Local NAMI affiliates partner with law enforcement agencies in hundreds of communities nationwide. Together with mental health providers, NAMI and law enforcement agencies work to evaluate the needs of their communities and their respective agencies and to plan for diversion—deciding where is the best place to transfer individuals in need of mental health care and how that transfer can be safe and dignified, with minimal time out of the officer’s shift.

NAMI affiliates also assist with CIT training, providing the perspectives of individuals living with mental illness and their families and interacting face-to-face with officers. This personal interaction helps to build trust on both sides and helps officers and individuals to understand one another. Finally, NAMI affiliates promote the CIT program and recognize the great service provided by CIT officers. In many communities, officers join the NAMI affiliate and participate in events such as NAMIWalks.3 These local partnerships are the foundation of a good CIT program and ensure that the program can be sustainable in the long term and can grow and evolve to meet the changing needs of the community.

Finally, NAMI affiliates, along with their local partners, have made CIT the foundation of broader advocacy efforts to improve access to mental health services and reduce the criminalization of people living with mental illnesses. Once partnerships are in place, many communities see opportunities to create mental health courts or push for further funding of mental health crisis services that help keep people out of jails and prisons.

At the national level, NAMI’s CIT Technical Assistance Center provides information, resources, and advice to local leaders—NAMI Affiliate leaders, local law enforcement professionals, and mental health providers—in creating, sustaining, and expanding their CIT programs. NAMI believes that the most important and most challenging part of CIT is building strong community partnerships. The NAMI CIT website,, features a variety of resources for communities, including a CIT Advocacy Toolkit, an electronic newsletter, a listserv, and links to partner organizations. At the annual NAMI national convention, a special session on CIT is one of the most popular programs. NAMI also works with the IACP; CIT International; and the University of Memphis, Tennessee, on a variety of other outreach efforts, including national conferences, publications, and webinars.

NAMI’s partnerships with the IACP and local law enforcement leaders have helped create local solutions to the criminalization of mental illness in hundreds of communities. ■

Laura Usher is the CIT Coordinator at NAMI. For information on partnering with NAMI, email her at


1IACP, Building Safer Communities: Improving Police Response to Persons with Mental Illness (Alexandria, Va.: 2001), (accessed September 20, 2011).
2Dana Markey et al., Responding to Youth with Mental Health Needs: A CIT for Youth Implementation Manual (National Alliance on Mental Illness, July 2011), (accessed September 16, 2011).
3“NAMIWalks,” (accessed September 16, 2011).

Please cite as:

Laura Usher, "NAMI and Law Enforcement Executives: Working Together to Improve Police Responses to People with Mental Illness," The Police Chief 78 (November 2011): 56–58.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 11, November 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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