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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

As an officer, you may be aware of the individu­aI's history of violence in similar circumstances. If the person's history is unknown, talk to family members, friends or neighbors. They can tell you if the person has exhibited changes of behavior or experienced violent and abrupt mood swings.

When determining if the subject presents physical danger, con­sider statements or actions that would lead you to believe the sub­ject is about to commit a violent act. Not all mentally ill people are dangerous. Be aware of the amount of control the person has over anger and fright. Just because he or she was nonviolent before you arrived on the scene does not mean you are not currently in danger.

In general, do not use emergency lights and sirens; they can provoke the indi­vidual and worsen the situation. Move slowly and wait for your backup to arrive. When possible, disperse crowds.

Assume a non-threatening demeanor, assess the situation and avoid physical contact. Talk to the subject and try to calm him or her down.

Communicating with the person may help him or her concentrate on the present. Stay away from topics that could cause excitement. Threatening an abnormal person only escalates stress and adds to the possibility of vio­lence. Talking may not calm your subject down, but it may distract the subject long enough for you to put your take-down plan into effect.

Are you immune from civil or financial liability for your acts in dealing with the mentally ill? You should have a working knowledge of state and local laws. This is to protect you as well as the rights of your subject. Remember, you are there to help. Again, never attempt to handle the potentially violent, abnormal person alone. Always wait for backup.

Mentally ill persons tend to exhibit greater strength than normal individuals. Once the decision is made to take someone into custody, restrain him or her as quickly as possible to lessen chances of injury to officers and the sub­ject. If the situation becomes violent, it is difficult for the subject to be a threat while face down and being restrained by you and other officers.

Less-than-lethal options

What should you do? Police are coming under ever­-increasing scrutiny in use-of-force decisions. You must fol­low policy and deal with the situation with the tools that are available.

Let's examine the original problem. What if the abnormal person has a knife to his own throat or a gun to his head? What if he simply starts walking down the street with a loaded weapon? Does that call for the use of deadly force? Certainly not. But even a noncompliant or non-aggressive mentally ill person can create unique handling problems.

In the past, veteran officers used wet bed sheets to inca­pacitate a violent abnoffi1al person. They simply rushed the aggressive person, wrapped or covered him or her in wet sheets, and overwhelmed the subject with physical force. Others used force and baton strokes to put the subject down. Juries award massive amounts on a regular basis to compensate people for injuries sustained from traditional weapons and tactics, so be careful. Today, law enforcement officers must find ways to deal with the use of force from a non-conventional perspective.

Use of the police baton is often inappropriate. Power strokes from a PR-24 baton can equal as much as 900 foot-pounds but still not put down a mentally ill person. The person may not feel the blows, especially if under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This situation can cause officers to be more than zealous in applying power strokes. That, in turn, can lead to accusations of excessive force.

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