A visiting social work professor from the University of Illinois-Chicago delivered a talk Thursday on the relationship between the criminal justice system and individuals with mental illness.

Amy Watson’s research focuses heavily on Crisis Intervention Team programs in Chicago police departments. CIT is a training program that prepares police officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of severe mental illness, as well as interact with people with these illnesses in a positive, helpful manner.

Police arrest more than 1 million people with severe mental illnesses each year, and one in four people fatally shot by police officers have severe mental illnesses. 

“Our largest mental health hospitals are jails,” Watson said.

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To reduce negative encounters, Watson said it’s important for police officers to be intentional with their tone of voice.

Recently, Watson conducted a study focusing on procedural justice, or how officers are perceived by those they are interacting with. She collected a set of qualitative reports by interviewing people with mental illness who had interacted with the police.

Watson found many of her subjects reported feeling scared and belittled when interacting with officers. She said voice, dignity and trust were the three factors that most impacted their experiences.

Since most of the subjects reported feeling threatened by officers because of past interactions, including consistently being harassed and assaulted, Watson said the bar for a positive encounter was low.

“How an officer treats a person may be more important than the specific outcome of the interaction,” Watson said.

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One of Watson’s subjects contrasted two different interactions they’d had with police. In one, they’d been treated with respect, and even though they were still arrested, they felt positive because they believed the officer was “just doing their job.” In the other encounter, they’d been harassed and reported feeling worse off, even though they weren’t arrested. 

Watson said CIT provides the training necessary to help officers do their job while providing the necessary services and compassion, including referring detainees to mental health services instead of sending them to prison.

“It’s really important how people are treated, especially when they’re feeling that vulnerable,” Watson said.

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One problem with Chicago is its large access disparities, Watson said, especially on the south side of Chicago, where there are few mental health clinics. This makes CIT training crucial for officers stationed in these areas, she said.

At the end of the talk, Watson fielded questions from the audience. One audience member asked if the solution to mental health and criminal justice should be focused on lessening the police’s interactions with people with mental illness. Watson said that would be ideal, but is not yet realistic. 

“Right now, we’re not in a situation where we want to give police less information on mental health,” Watson said.