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Mentally Ill and Dangerous

Knowing the signs of mental illness can help control an unpredictable confrontation.

November 01, 1996  |  by Michael P. Flynn

It's been a busy shift; the weather's hot and humid. Everyone is restless and look­ing for trouble. You arrive at your next call to find your mentally ill subject standing in his driveway with a loaded pistol to his head. Ernie is well-known. He burned out on drugs long ago, and now he's threatening suicide. Suddenly, he lowers the pistol and starts walking down the sidewalk toward a convenience store at the end of the block. 

Mental illness is defined as a psychiatric disorder characterized  by abnormal functioning of the  centers of the brain responsible for thought, perception, mood and behavior. And according to mental health codes, it is the substantial disorder of thought or mood that significantly impairs judgement, behavior, the capacity to recognize reality or the ability to cope with the ordinary demands of life. The borderline between mental illness and what is considered normal is sometimes indistinct.

Identifying mental illness can be difficult for even the trained professional. Police officers may not be able to make a clinical judgement about a person's mental state. Knowing how to identify and recognize behavior that could become harmful or threatening, however, is impor­tant. You have to consider the individual's size and his mental condition, and you must deal with bystanders, all while determining the level of force you should use. You also must handle the abnormal person without endangering your own or the subject's safety.

Dealing with the mentally ill is a perplexing social and psychological situation. The usual pain compliance tech­niques may not be effective on a person who is high on drugs. He or she may not even recognize you as a police offi­cer. Some officers have used too little force in these situa­tions and were injured or killed. Others used too much force and lost their careers or went to jail. What is the correct amount of force? Traditional weapons such as the baton, flashlight and blackjack, which served the police so well in the past, have been perceived by the courts and public as excessive In many cases.

What type of tactics should you use? How do you deal with an unarmed but abnormal person, or an armed and emotionally disturbed person? Suicidal subjects may even set you up to do the job for them. Remember, you can only use the force neces­sary to maintain control and avoid injury to you and the subject.

Any incident involving an individual who is thought to be mentally ill has a high potential for violence. Without reliable communication skills we, as police officers, often aggravate situations we should have been able to de-esca­late. You must make a judgment on the temperament and intent of the individual. Forming these opinions requires special skills to deal effectively, safely and legally with such a person. Abnormal persons aren't going to do exactly what you want them to do. Be flexible and keep things simple.

Signs of mental illness

There are certain general traits of mental illness that you should be aware of. Outward appearances may include the inability to take care of clothing, food, housing and safety-similar to an individual supporting a serious drug habit. Officers who believe they are dealing with a mentally ill sub­ject should not rule out other causes, such as reaction to drugs or alcohol, or a temporary emotional disturbance. 

Officers face immense problems dealing with mentally ill persons who have abused drugs or alcohol. The person may show needle marks or possess drug paraphernalia. Domestic violence and suicide attempts are more common among sub­stance abusers and people diagnosed as mentally ill.

The mentally ill may show an unrea­sonable fear of per­sons, places or things. They may become introverted or violent without provocation. They may exhibit improper, aggressive conduct in common situations. They are easily frustrated and may show an unusual memory loss of well-known facts.

Delusions of grandeur, feelings of persecution, hearing imaginary voices, seeing visions or smelling strange odors are all things your mentally ill subject may be experi­encing. The person may think he or she suffers from an extraordinary physical ailment that cannot possi­bly occur. The mentally ill sometime exhibit signs of panic-showing extreme fright or depression-for unapparent reasons. Be sure to evaluate a suspect's behavior in the total con­text of the situation. Begging to be left alone or offering frantic assur­ances that he or she is all right suggest the abnormal subject may be losing con­trol. People on the scene may exacerbate the situa­tion by agitating the indi­vidual. But other times, family members or friends can have a calming influ­ence on the subject.

Tags: Mentally Ill Subjects


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