One year after C.J. Lofton, a 17-year-old, died in the custody of Wichita Juvenile Detention Intake Center officials; only five of 15 changes recommended by a community task force, appointed to study his death and make recommendations for improvements, have been completed. Eight are in progress and two have not been started.
In addition, none of the officers involved in the struggle that led to his death have faced any charges.
On that fateful night, Sept. 24, 2021, C.J.’s foster father called 911, asking for help for the teenager, who was in a mental illness crisis. Police who responded to the call ended up restraining C.J. and transporting him to Juvenile Detention, rather than to a mental health hospital unit.
At Juvenile Detention, he was forcefully held down in a prone position for more than 30 minutes, resulting in his death.
Most of the recommendations that have been implemented so far involve the implementation of staff training.
The task force’s recommendation for continuing mental health education for all Wichita police officers in their first and second year of service has been implemented. Mental health education is required for all recruits and is optional for existing officers. It is available both online and in person.
A second recommendation for mandatory crisis intervention training for all departments has been implemented, however there is a challenge with getting everyone scheduled. The class is offered annually to multiple agencies and the county is looking for ways to increase training capacity. The state has indicated willingness to help.
The third recommendation completed is scheduling repeat or refresher training on mental health, trauma, cultural and gender identity, and implicit bias. Task force members were informed a lack of knowledge and training in these areas can cause an intervention to escalate. The benefit of this kind of training is to help officers see the underlying issues that may be a part of a crisis situation and help them avoid language or actions that may make the situation worse.
Bias-based training is required annually, and county staff is working with the FBI for Color of Law and Hate Crime training. The goal of that training is to help officers identify when bias is playing a role in their decision making or the decisions of others at the same scene.
Finally, an annual review of employee expectations and policies is being done to make sure that all officers understand how they are expected to interact with community members and understand their role in initiating conversations. The Wichita Police Department implemented diversity panels to help officers have conversations with community members. Participation in these diversity panels has been added to standard police training for new officers.
Recommendations in progress
Some of the toughest questions involving any 911 call is deciding what help to send when a call comes in.
Elora Forshee,Director of Sedgwick County Emergency Communications, said the task force looked at how 911 operators make those decisions and how response to mental health crises can be improved.
The task force recommended funding for a 24/7 ComCare Mobile Mental Health Unit and funding for 24/7 ICT One teams.
“It was clear that we needed to diversify our resources,” she said. “At the time of C.J.’s death, we only had police, fire or EMS to send. Now we have the new ICT One crisis team that is available to respond at least some of the time.”
The ICT One crisis team includes a paramedic from Sedgwick County EMS, a police officer from the Wichita Police Department and a social worker from ComCare. In a mental health crisis, the social worker and EMS take the lead with police there just to provide protection for them should they need it.
The idea is that people trained in mental health crisis intervention will be able to de-escalate the situation and make sure the patient gets help, not taken into police custody.
“What we really need is to always have a team available and while we have established the concept, it is not fully staffed,” Forshee said.
Funding for those two programs in the amount of $750,000 is in the city’s adopted budget for 2023.The programs are in the planning phase and a meeting with relevant stakeholders to get their advice on how to move to implementation of a response that is available around the clock.
The city has also pledged to use current social workers to provide three full-time and three part-time positions on the response teams.
WPD is also working to implement the recommendation for mandatory trauma-informed training for law enforcement. The training is science-based and teaches officers how to build rapport with individuals and ask questions that are open-ended and non-judgmental.This training has been in place for the last five years and all recruits have received it. All officers get a refresher course after five years on the job. An advanced five-day class is provided to detectives. WPD is working to determine what further training should be added.
The task force also recommended a random review process for footage from police body cameras and added a requirement for officers to leave their body cameras turned on throughout an entire incident including the completion of paperwork. WPD is analyzing the feasibility of that action.
The task force suggested the creation of a Memorandum of Understanding between the WPD and the Juvenile Intake Assessment Center that honors the 2016 U.S. Attorney General opinion that holds that an officer bringing a juvenile to the center has to reveal everything he knows about the condition and circumstances that caused the juvenile to be in custody. That opinion also establishes that the JIAC does not have custody of the juvenile and cannot make decisions about transferring the juvenile to medical facilities. That has been completed and is pending signoff by the county.
WPD is also reaching out to the Dept. of Children and Families to see if its Community Support Specialists program can be expanded. There are currently two Community Support Specialists on board and the staff recommends one specialist for each police bureau. The specialists visit homes identified by police as in crisis and help the family access help.
County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said there is at least some of the necessary funding for implementing the task force recommendations. She said there is a $1 million contingency fund for mental health in general. However, she said the price tag for implementing all of the recommendations would be about $3 million.
In addition, she said both the University of Kansas and Wichita State are considering adding health sciences programs that should help relieve one of the major issues with implementing the recommendations – a lack of trained and available workers.
Recommendations Not Started
Two suggestions from the task force are still on hold, pending a determination on which agency should lead the implementation.
Those recommendations are to develop and implement standardized training that targets foster care, law enforcement, 911 and Juvenile Detention personnel. Topics would include de-escalation, mental health, first aid, adolescent brain development and de-stigmatization of mental health. Also, when and under what circumstances a youth can and should be taken to the local mental health unit at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph as opposed to JIAC.
A final recommendation is the creation of a Wichita/Sedgwick County network of collaborators including training for grassroots organizations in recognizing and responding to mental health crises