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Minnesota’s Barbara Schneider Foundation teaches crisis intervention strategies to Rikers Island team

At the end of the week, the group of trainees returned to New York armed with a fresh perspective.

Rikers Island employees who did a weeklong Crisis Intervention Team Training in Minneapolis with the Barbara Schneider Foundation.
Courtesy of the Barbara Schneider Foundation

After researching the nation’s top Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs, a group of corrections officers and other staff members from New York’s Rikers Island decided that the Minneapolis-based Barbara Schneider Foundation was best qualified to lead them through an extensive train-the-trainer program designed to help jumpstart the process of  implementing CIT in their facilities. 

Rikers Island, a complex of 10 jails on an island in New York’s the East River, has been under intense scrutiny of late, thanks to an in-depth series of articles in the New York Times focusing on abuses of inmates with mental illness at the hands of corrections officers.

The Barbara Schneider Foundation, named in honor of Barbara Schneider, a Minneapolis woman who was killed in 2000 by police during a confrontation in a mental health crisis call, conducts trainings that focus, in part, on de-escalating crisis in interactions between law enforcement or corrections officers and people with mental illness.

Late this spring, Mark Anderson, the foundation’s executive director, got a call from Anthony Waters, director of mental health and correctional health services at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Waters wanted to know if the Barbara Schneider Foundation could host a weeklong comprehensive CIT train-the-trainer training for a group of Rikers staff leaders. He wanted to schedule the program in the first part of the summer. Anderson agreed, and went to work to plan and schedule the training on short notice.

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“We had to scramble a bit, but we pulled together a good program,” he said.

The Rikers group of 12 participants, “half from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the other half from Department of Corrections,” Anderson explained, came to the Twin Cities June 8-12. The weeklong program was held at the Columbia Heights Police Department each day from 8-4.

“Recent New York Times articles have been published about problems at Rikers, including inmate violence, staff violence, corruption and suicidality of inmates,” Anderson explained. “Leadership at Rikers is trying to address these issues with a comprehensive approach. Part of that approach included setting up this training with us here in Minnesota. They think our training model can help improve outcomes in their facilities.”

How CIT works

Developed in 1988 by Memphis police officer Sam Cochran and University of Memphis criminal justice professor Randy Dupont, CIT was designed to teach law enforcement officers how to react nonviolently in crisis interactions with people diagnosed with mental illness or developmental disabilities. 

The Barbara Schneider Foundation’s CIT trainings have earned a national reputation, expanding their programs to include communities beyond law enforcement, said Randy Carroll, Barbara Schneider senior CIT trainer.

“We see that these ideas can be applicable in many different settings,” Carroll said. “We have worked with people in a wide variety of workplaces.” Carroll was part of the Barbara Schneider training team that worked with the Rikers group during their recent Twin Cities visit.

Anderson said the core goal of CIT is increasing empathy for people with mental illness, seeing individuals as more than their diagnosis, and developing ways that they can be treated — within rigid systems — in a humane and fair manner. They also focus on decreasing the use of force in crisis. Barbara Schneider trainings accomplish that through discussion, sample scenarios conducted with participants and professional actors, and in-person group conversations led by volunteers with mental illness.

Since the foundation was established by a group of Twin Cities mental health activists and law enforcement professionals, staff at Barbara Schneider have developed CIT programs for groups from around the country. The organization’s target market is broad, including law enforcement and corrections workers and social service workers, educators and heath care professionals.

“We started doing CIT in hospitals because they see a lot of people with mental illness and have a lot of tense interactions,” Anderson said. “For four or five years now, we’ve been training hospital staff at Allina, for instance. Nursing staff there tells us that that since our trainings, the use of force in their hospitals is down dramatically. People have learned how to de-escalate situations and see mentally ill people as more than just their diagnosis.”

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The diverse range of approaches appealed to Rikers staff, Carroll said.

“It’s my understanding that the Rikers folks did a lot of research before they came to Barbara Schneider. One of the supervisors at Rikers [had managed] inmates most of his career. When he looked at Barbara Schneider, I believe he found that they were doing something different from other places, something better for this group of people with mental illness. Barbara Schneider is really ahead of the curve.”

Results and reaction

At the end of the training, the Rikers group left Minnesota armed with the information they need to begin the work of establishing CIT programs in their facilities, Anderson said. The group that came to Minnesota represented a mix of Rikers staff, from corrections officers to psychologists and health care workers.

“To my understanding, this group had been asked to do this training relatively quickly, to develop a training for other Rikers staff in the CIT model,” Anderson said. “The idea is it’s not remedial training. It’s voluntary. It’s communication and mental health training for your most advanced people who can adopt this de-escalation approach and model it for other staff.”

Because Barbara Schneider CIT programs always focus on empathy and understanding, a group discussion featuring a volunteer with mental illness was a key part of the Rikers training. As he was designing the Rikers training, Anderson invited Charles Jensen, a person with severe mental illness who has spoken at other Barbara Schneider trainings, to come and speak to the group.

“Charles had been diagnosed with a mental illness and was being treated for that mental illness while he was arrested dozen and dozens of times,” Anderson said. “He kept going in and out of jail. Finally the probation officer told the judge on his seventh felony arrest, ‘You keep sending him to jail but it doesn’t seem to do any good. Can we send him to St. Peter?’”

Focused mental health care at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter helped Jenson get a more accurate diagnosis for his condition.

“The delusions went away while he was medicated,” Anderson said. “Charles became aware of the fact that they were delusions. He told the Rikers group the story of how his interaction with the criminal justice system ended and he went for 10 years without being arrested.”

The conversation was significant for the Rikers group, Anderson said. “When Charles talks about his personal experiences, it is so powerful. It’s not some expert, not some academic. He’s a human being, the same kind of person they interact with on a daily basis in a jail.”

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This kind of intimate interaction can help change people’s perspective, Carroll said: “It’s completely the empathy piece.” Carroll’s father struggled with a severe depression that changed his life and caused him to leave the family farm. That personal history has informed Carroll’s career. “If you understand that this person has bipolar with psychotic features, if you understood what that meant for his behavior, you’d obviously approach him differently when you encounter him in a work situation.”

At the end of the week, Carroll and Anderson said the group of trainees returned to New York armed with a fresh perspective.

“They were really pleased with the training,” Anderson said. This is a tough group who has seen it all in their line of work, he explained. While they all sincerely wanted to learn how to improve their programs, it was clear that many were skeptical that a small foundation based in Minneapolis could teach them anything they didn’t already know.

“What typically happens is when people come in, and even though they ask for this training, even thought they’ve investigated it and think CIT is the best approach, they come in and they are skeptical,” Anderson said.  “As trainers, you have to prove yourself. We see people who have been doing this kind of work for over 20 years. They have a way of doing it. They know what works for them. They know about real challenges that they have to cope with on a daily basis. You are asking them to do things a little differently. At the end, though, this group from New York thought it was helpful to use this approach. They thought it would be something they could use with their staff. That was our goal, and that’s the first step.”