With three letters, Virginia lawmakers hope to reduce police use of force

CIT Training statewide could show results, at a cost
Published: Sep. 3, 2020 at 12:02 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - After a series of police shootings across the country this summer, lawmakers in Richmond are grappling with the best way to try and reduce police use of force.

One possible solution: a bill currently before the Senate, SB 5014, that focuses on something called Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, training.

The goal is to prepare officers to handle mental health, substance abuse or other crises. The training shows officers how to get people the resources they need, rather than just sending them to jail.

Ask Roanoke County Police Sgt. Dan Walters about crisis intervention team training, and you’ll probably hear this line more than once: “The biggest tool that we use as officers is not on our gun belt. It’s our voice, it’s our brain, it’s our way of communicating.”

It’s a mantra the CIT instructor tries to drill into the heads of the officers he trains at the Roanoke Police Academy.

“Our recruits go through a full week of training,” he said.

That training includes lectures from experts from Blue Ridge Behavioral Health and beyond, as well as re-enactions of potentially volatile situations.

“Usually the scenarios that we put them in are ones that us as seasoned officers have actually been through,” said Walters.” Whether that being responding to a domestic with a drug issue, or responding to an autistic child.”

It all adds up, Walters says, to training that could potentially save lives, “at least in my experience of being here for 22 years, I feel like it has.”

Almost all police departments and sheriff’s offices in Virginia have at least some CIT-trained personnel. According to a 2015 survey from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, 95 percent of Virginians live in an area where trained officers are available.

The bill now before the General Assembly, SB 5014, would make that training mandatory for all law enforcement.

Roanoke County has already taken this approach, and says Chief Howard Hall, there are serious benefits.

“Many times, in a crisis type situation, the bad thing happens very early on in the incident,” said Hall. “So if an untrained officer gets there, they may have to deal with the critical incident before the specially trained officer gets there.”

But requiring CIT training statewide isn’t without issues. Some studies have questioned how well the training actually works. Virginia’s Department of Planning and Budget also estimates paying for this training would cost millions each year, during an already tight budget season.

And, perhaps most importantly, CIT training doesn’t prevent an officer from using deadly force.

“Obviously officer safety is number one,” said Sgt. Dan Walters.

But while it won’t resolve every situation peacefully, Walters and Hall both argue it is a step in the right direction.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ. All rights reserved.

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