Tucson’s Mental Health Investigative Support Team – a New Approach for Responding to Mental Health Calls for Service

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing offers several recommendations for improving police interactions with persons with mental health concerns, including

  • adopting preferences for seeking “least harm” resolutions
  • embracing a guardian mindset
  • engaging in multidisciplinary community team approaches for planning, implementing, and responding to crisis situations.

tucsonThe Tucson, Arizona, Police Department’s Mental Health Investigative Support Team (MHIST) is a great example of many of these recommendations in action. MHIST is a specially trained unit including a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant, three detectives, and seven field officers that serve as a mental health support network for officers, people in the community, and health care providers.  MHIST officers embrace a guardian mindset and employ alternative, least-harm resolutions to mental health calls for service.

TPD created the team in 2013 when following the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the department sought a fresh approach to how it handled mental health related calls. Since its inception, the team has changed the way that the department handles incidents involving persons affected by mental illness. Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus has instilled the principles of CIT throughout both the MHIST and the Department as a whole. The principles are reflected in the core operations of MHIST.

  • MHIST serves as a central resource for patrol when facing challenges in responding to persons with mental illness.
  • Mental health investigations dovetail with criminal investigations and include the possibility of a mental health diversion for the individual involved.
  • TPD employs policies and procedures for special populations. Investigative protocols in the TPD General Operating Policies cover special circumstances involving vulnerable groups. See https://www.tucsonaz.gov/police/general-orders.
  • Tucson engages in a multidisciplinary community team approach for planning, implementing, and responding to crisis situations. MHIST connects behavioral health, law enforcement, and the justice system, to ensure a coordinated, efficient response.
  • The MHIST officers wear civilian clothes and drive unmarked cars to reduce negative perceptions and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

MHIST has been successful in preventing events that could have escalated to the level of the Giffords shooting.  For example, the Team was able to prevent a possible church shooting by obtaining a mental health court order for an individual who was charged with felony stalking of multiple victims and in the possession of multiple firearms.

Through preventative actions, specialized training, and continuous open communication, the Tucson Police Department’s Mental Health Investigative Support Team is changing the department’s response to interactions with individuals with behavioral health concerns.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting best practices in advancing 21st century policing as part of the IACP Institute for Community-Police Relations. Tucson is one of fifteen sites selected for participation in the Advancing 21st Century Policing Initiative, a joint project of the COPS Office, CNA, and the IACP to highlight agencies who are actively embracing the principles in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

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2 Responses to Tucson’s Mental Health Investigative Support Team – a New Approach for Responding to Mental Health Calls for Service

  1. CHIPS Stewart -- Life Member IACP says:

    Mental Health Investigative Support Teams have been recommended before but this Tucson Police example demonstrates, for police executives, what the recommendations look like in operational mode. I encourage more agencies to review the real work that serves as a test bed for innovative means to do “the least harm”. This is a fresh innovation that is laudable. Congratulations to Tucson, the IACP and the President’s TF Report. — CHIPS Stewart

  2. Elaine Deck says:

    This is one of the most valuable and encouraging models of police-community-healthcare partnerships I have seen in recent months. I have forwarded in onto my CEO at the Children’s Mental Health Network who will be featuring it in the Friday Updates circulated to hundreds of thousands of mental health professionals, advocates, families and systems leaders around the US and other countries. Well Done! Elaine Deck

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