FREEHOLD – When the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO), in conjunction with its mental health partners, launched its inaugural round of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Training in June 2021, it did so with the goal of turning it into a trusted blueprint for such programs statewide.

That ambition was officially realized late last month, when the Monmouth County CIT Training was named Program of the Year at the ninth annual New Jersey CIT Forum, held at the Middlesex County Fire Academy in Sayreville.

“This award represents validation of what those of us directly involved in CIT already know: this training is of vital importance, it works effectively, and its application literally saves lives,” Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond S. Santiago said. “As more officers are trained, we continue to hear touching and encouraging stories about how just one week of training allowed them to intervene at among the lowest points in a person’s life, helping steer individuals in crisis to recovery.”

“The Monmouth County Board of County Commissioners is proud to be supportive of the Prosecutor’s Office providing this incredible training,” said Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone. “We commend the Prosecutor’s Office, and their partners, for their well-deserved recognition and winning this prestigious award.”

CIT training provides those enrolled with an in-depth look at mental illness, behavioral health, developmental disabilities, and their implications for a law-enforcement response during a crisis, with a strong emphasis on de-escalation.

The training is based on an innovative international model, with community mental healthcare and advocacy partnerships. Instructors for MCPO’s CIT training include behavioral and mental health professionals from Monmouth Medical Center, the Monmouth County Mental Health Board, the Monmouth County Mental Health Association, and CPC Behavioral Healthcare, as well as crisis resolution experts.

Police officers learn to apply the strategies they learn in real-life situations in order to minimize the potential for injury or violence. Mental and behavioral health practitioners also sit in as students in the class in order to build relationships with the police officers, and to better understand the issues they face while often serving as the initial responders to such calls for service.

MCPO’s CIT training is unique in that it also features a specially tailored curriculum with innovative approaches to crisis management, including FBI Negotiation and Threat Simulator components, a presentation on Faith & Blue (a police-chaplaincy partnership program), and training on recognition of signs of dementia. The CIT Training Steering Committee includes members of the Prosecutor’s Office, the Monmouth County Mental Health Association, CPC Behavioral Healthcare, the Middletown Police Department, Preferred Behavioral Health, and RWJBarnabas Behavioral Health.

The recent CIT Forum didn’t mark the first time individuals directly involved in MCPO CIT training were so honored. At last year’s Forum, Long Branch Police Department Detective Sergio Chaparro and local Peer Recovery Specialist Nikki Tierney accepted the New Jersey CIT Law Enforcement Officer of the Year and Peer of the Year awards, respectively, given for their joint work in saving a life in crisis in July 2021.

During the limited amount of downtime he had during MCPO’s first CIT session, launched under the leadership of then-acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Lori Linskey, Chaparro, then a Patrolman, struck up a conversation with Tierney, a certified crisis counselor whose work helping individuals afflicted by substance abuse overcome their addiction often took her through Long Branch. At the end of the week, they exchanged contact information, but little did either of them realize that what they had just learned would have vital real-life applicability just days later.

First responders found then-58-year-old Tim Bowles on a public bench in Long Branch, dehydrated, homeless, and barely responsive one weekday afternoon, in the midst of a brutal heat wave. Chaparro recognized Bowles’s name instantly – he had previously responded to several calls for service involving him, including multiple previous overdoses. With that in mind, he reached out to Tierney through dispatch and asked that she come meet him.

After a brief period of hesitancy, in barely an hour’s time after their arrival, Bowles was linked to housing, mental health, and substance use disorder support; Tierney said she attributed his change of heart in great part due to Chaparro’s initial response.

Similar stories of officers who had undergone CIT training later encountering individuals in crisis and connecting them to resources have since arisen out of Asbury Park, Hazlet, Holmdel, Keyport, and Spring Lake Heights, among other towns; anecdotes outlining these encounters are regularly posted to MCPO’s social-media feeds.

More than half of the various law-enforcement agencies in Monmouth County have had at least one CIT training participant to date.  

“We hosted our fifth round of CIT training at our office in Freehold the week before last, and we plan to continue with two training sessions annually for the foreseeable future,” said MCPO Director of Investigations Hoda Soliman, who also coordinates the CIT training in Monmouth County. “It’s a rare win-win-win: our police officers benefit, our community partners benefit, and the people they protect and serve benefit.”