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Washington state takes lead on police mental health training

Law passed last year followed fatal confrontation between man and police officers

By Andy Marso | October 24, 2016

Editor’s note: Reporters from the Topeka Capital-Journal and KHI News Service collaborated for a six-month exploration of how the state’s legal system deals with people with mental illness. This is one of the stories in a four-day series.


Who: All law enforcement officers in the state of Washington.

What: A law passed requires eight hours of crisis intervention team training be included in the basic curriculum for all law enforcement officers by 2017, and a two-hour refresher course incorporated into annual training.

When: The law gained approval in 2015.

Quote: “We had been hurt more than anyone could ever hurt us again. So what could we do? We had to change things.” — Joyce Ostling, who lobbied for the law after her son Doug was killed by Bainbridge Island police officers during a mental health crisis.

Legislators in Washington state broke new ground in 2015 when they passed a bill requiring all law enforcement officers to be trained for encounters with people in mental health crises.

The law was born out of tragedy.

On the night of Oct. 26, 2010, two Bainbridge Island police officers arrived at the home of Bill and Joyce Ostling, responding to a strange 911 call.

Bill told the officers he and his wife had not made the call, but his 43-year-old son Doug, who lived in an apartment above their garage, might have.

As Bill led the officers to Doug’s apartment, he warned them that his son was mentally ill.

Under the Bainbridge Island police manual, that should have changed the way they approached the situation, causing them to be more deliberate and conscious of not escalating things. But neither officer had any training on how to implement the manual’s orders.

Within five minutes of the officers’ arrival, Doug Ostling had been shot and was bleeding to death.

Within five years of Ostling’s death, his grieving parents helped change the way all of the state’s officers approach people with mental illness.

“We had been hurt more than anyone could ever hurt us again,” Joyce Ostling said in a phone interview. “So what could we do? We had to change things.”

Law enforcement experts nationwide hail the mental health training as useful, given how frequently officers deal with people in crisis since states began moving away from institutionalizations in the 1960s. But nearly every state, including Kansas, leaves the decision of whether to require the training up to local jurisdictions.

Local law enforcement agencies were reluctant to give up that authority in Washington, too, but the Ostlings and their partners showed how to make the mandate palatable.

The Douglas M. Ostling Act in Senate Bill 5311 requires that eight hours of crisis intervention team training be included in the basic curriculum for all Washington officers by 2017, and a two-hour refresher course incorporated into annual training.

Current officers will be required to have the eight-hour training by 2021. The law also sets a goal of ensuring that at least one-fourth of the state’s officers receive a more intensive, 40-hour version of the training.

“I just think it’s a real win-win,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, the Washington state senator who spearheaded the bill’s passage. “It helps the community, it helps keep the officers safe and it’s what people want our law enforcement to be about.”

Photo by Courtesy Bill Ostling Bill and Joyce Ostling stand at right of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at the ceremonial signing of a bill requiring all law enforcement officers to be trained for encounters with people in mental health crises. The Ostlings were joined by family members, mental health advocates and others representing police, attorney and criminal justice organizations.

Evidence supports training

Crisis intervention team training focuses on educating officers about mental illness, how to respond when they encounter people with mental illness in the community and what resources are available to help people in crisis.

The training is not new. In 1988 the Memphis Police Department became the first to create a crisis intervention team.

Its popularity is increasing as research shows it has the potential to save lives and reduce the incarceration of Americans with mental illness.

A Washington Post database showed that about a fourth of people shot and killed by police this year had a documented mental illness.

An extensive study of crisis intervention team, or CIT, programs published in the March 2008 volume of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that the training leads to fewer people with mental illness being arrested and jailed.

“Early research indicates that the training component of the CIT model may have a positive effect on officers’ attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge relevant to interactions with such individuals,” the study’s authors reported, “and CIT-trained officers have reported feeling better prepared in handling calls involving individuals with mental illnesses.”    

[ Related story: Handling Kansans with mental illness a matter of training for law enforcement

Despite the evidence, states have been slow to mandate the training, leaving individual law enforcement agencies to decide if their officers should have it.

In some states the largest agencies have voluntarily instituted the training. A 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that nearly all the residents of Utah and Florida were covered by CIT-trained officers.

Washington residents, who were at 63 percent coverage in 2013, have placed their state among a small group now moving to make it 100 percent.

The Maryland Legislature voted for a similar mandate in 2014, but that state’s law focuses on training police to interact with residents who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, not mental illness.

That same year Connecticut passed a mandate that more closely aligns with the Washington bill.

Resistance in Kansas

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center report, about 49 percent of Kansans were served by law enforcement officers with CIT training in 2013. As of 2014, most of those officers worked in four high-population counties: Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Shawnee.

“We are all for the CIT training, and a lot of our agencies are participating in it,” said Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka Police Department chief who now lobbies at the Statehouse on behalf of several law enforcement groups.

But mental health groups have pushed for more CIT coverage in Kansas, especially in rural areas. Only about 25 percent of the 8,000 full-time and part-time law enforcement officers in the state had the training in 2014.

Family members of 18-year-old Joseph Jennings said they would like to see more officers with CIT training after Jennings was fatally shot by Ottawa police that year. Jennings was shot in a public parking lot just hours after being released from a local hospital’s psychiatric unit following a suicide attempt.

Jennings had been living with his aunt, who said the two officers involved knew him and that “he was not alright.”

“Changing culture is hard to do. Police officers have an established culture. It takes time. It takes money and resources, and you can only do it a couple different ways. Mandating is one way.”

- Bill Ostling, who advocated for police crisis intervention team training after his son was killed during a confrontation with police in Washington state

The leader of the Kansas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Rick Cagan, said the organization had no record of Ottawa police receiving CIT training.

Klumpp said the groups he represents, including Kansas sheriffs, would not support a statewide mandate. And he’s not sure it would be effective.

“If you mandate everybody do it, are you going to have people who aren’t really into it enough to make it work doing it?” he asked.

Klumpp also said financial and personnel resources are serious obstacles to instituting the training for some of the state’s smallest law enforcement departments.

Half of Kansas’ police forces have 10 or fewer officers, Klumpp said, and it’s hard for those agencies to send an officer away for just one day of training, let alone 40 hours.

“Even requiring one in every agency might be difficult,” Klumpp said. “And of course funding is always an issue.”

Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, a Republican from Topeka, has sponsored a bill that would provide federal grants for the training. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Similar challenges in Washington

In Washington, Rolfes and the Ostlings said they faced similar objections, which blocked the CIT mandate when it was originally introduced in 2013.

But Rolfes and her colleagues helped lay the groundwork that year by adding $300,000 of state funding to cover CIT training of more new recruits at the state’s Criminal Justice Training Center.

When Rolfes proposed the mandate again in 2015, law enforcement agencies were more receptive.

“At that point, officers were getting the training and there was good anecdotal evidence it was working,” Rolfes said. “Police departments were open to it, and it was a valuable tool.”

Rolfes also brought powerful allies into the lobbying efforts, including Sue Rahr, the training center’s executive director.

Then the Legislature added one important sweetener: about $1 million per year to pay agencies for travel costs and other expenses for their officers and provide temporary replacements while they trained.

Photo by Courtesy Bill Ostling Joyce Ostling, left, and Bill Ostling, right, talk with Jay Inslee, governor of Washington. Their oldest daughter also is pictured. The Ostings were frequent visitors to the Capitol as they lobbied Washington state legislators to approve a bill requiring crisis intervention team training for all law enforcement officers in the state.

View larger photo

Rolfes said the state funding was “absolutely important” to counter law enforcement complaints that the bill amounted to an unfunded mandate.

The money, and the dogged advocacy of the Ostling family, made the difference.

Bill and Joyce became frequent visitors at the Statehouse in Olympia, testifying for the bill, taking tips from professional lobbyists and talking with influential lawmakers one-on-one. One of Doug Ostling’s aunts even introduced herself to a legislator she spotted at a Seahawks game and asked him to pass the bill.

Rolfes said the human face the Ostlings put on the bill ultimately made it irresistible.

“That’s why it passed,” she said.

Bill Ostling said he remembered the resistance they initially faced when they went to Olympia after getting their local police force to institute CIT training.

It sounded similar to the arguments against the mandate in Kansas.

“These smaller communities can’t afford to send their people away for training,” he said. “So yeah, they were very skeptical.”

Ostling said he understood Klumpp’s point about the limited benefits of forcing the training on officers who aren’t interested in it.

“Changing culture is hard to do,” Ostling said. “Police officers have an established culture. It takes time. It takes money and resources, and you can only do it a couple different ways. Mandating is one way. It’s not necessarily the most effective way. You’re changing the spirit of man.”

Ostling said there are reasons for agencies to pursue the training that go beyond humanitarianism, though.

He pointed to the $1 million court judgment his family won against the city of Bainbridge Island for failing to train its police officers to carry out the orders in their manual — a judgment that nearly matches the annual state appropriation for the training.

“Either pay up front now or you pay later,” Ostling said he told legislators. “You’re still going to pay. … Let’s just pay up front and get them trained so you don’t have to settle all these lawsuits.”