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Handling the Mentally Ill: There Are No Shortcuts for Officers

As with much of police work, being successful in this kind of encounter goes back to proper training. Data suggests the number of such individuals on the street nationwide is increasing.

March 01, 2000  |  by D.P. Van Blaricom

A recent two-part article in the Los Angeles Times addressed the issue of police shootings of the mentally ill.  That report focused on 37 people, who had been shot by Los Angeles police since 1994, when they were encountered while exhibiting bizarre behavior.  In all of these incidents the reason for the shootings was given as self-defense of the officers or others.  The question, that inevitably arises in the aftermath of any such shooting, is: Was it necessary?

The problem of the mentally ill is nationwide in scope and Los Angeles is only an example of what is happening elsewhere as well.  One study has shown that 32 percent of the homeless, who populate our urban streets, are mentally ill and if you have homeless people in your community, you most certainly have those who are mentally ill among them.

Furthermore, it is also estimated that 13 percent of the total U.S. population are mentally ill at any given time and 2.8 percent of those people have "severe" mental illnesses-that is a lot of disturbed people out there!

Who is called when a mentally ill person starts exhibiting bizarre behavior in the public?  The police, of course, and one out of every 10 calls is estimated to involve a mentally ill person.  With 911 and a vast network of cellular phones readily available for instant calling, it is not surprising that the police are being summoned to these incidents with ever increasing frequency.

When a problem of that magnitude faces officers on the street, you would expect to see commensurate training provided, right?  Wrong.  The fact is that officers generally receive very little training in recognizing and appropriately responding to the mentally ill, whom they are certain to encounter.  A common explanation for this lack of training is that "mental illness is not a police problem" and "the police are not social workers."  You may recall a similar explanation for not intervening in domestic violence, before it was recognized that the police do have a role.  After all, if the police are going to be responding to people who are displaying symptoms of mental illness, and there is no question that they will, does it not follow that they should be trained in how to both effectively and humanely do so?

A recent federal appellate court decision, incidentally, suggests that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires such training.  In the State of California, which is usually considered a leader in police training, the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Commission's approved curriculum requires only four hours on the whole range of mental disabilities.

Surely, this is insufficient to prepare an officer for an encounter that can escalate into a shooting and is in sharp contrast to the 16 hours of training, on mental illness alone, that is recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The essential difference between suspect encounter training, that officers traditionally receive, and how to approach the mentally ill is the need to be non-confrontational.  Such a requirement to, in effect, shift gears is diametrically opposed to the way officers are routinely expected to control conflict.  The same command techniques that are employed to take a criminal suspect into custody can only serve to escalate a contact with the mentally ill into violence.

The National Law Enforcement Policy Center (NLEPC) has developed well-reasoned policy for police contact with the mentally ill and suggests that:

"It is helpful for officers to understand the symptomatic behavior of persons who are afflicted with a form of mental illnesses.  In this way, officers are in a better position to formulate appropriate strategies for gaining the individual's compliance."

"Officers should first take time, if possible, to survey the situation in order to gather necessary information and avoid hasty and potentially counterproductive decisions and actions."

"Officers should avoid approaching the subject until a degree of rapport has been developed."

"All attempts should be used to communicate with the person first by allowing him to ventilate."

"The individual should not be threatened with arrest or other enforcement action as this will only add to the subject's fright and stress and may potentially spark aggression."

PERF has long been a leader in advocating better training for the police response to the mentally ill and they similarly suggest:

"Do not rush the person or crowd his personal space.  Any attempt to force an issue may quickly backfire in the form of violence."

"He may be waving his fists, or a knife, or yelling.  If the situation is secure, and if no one can be accidentally harmed by the individual, you should adopt a non-threatening, non-confrontative stance with the subject."

"Excessively emotional or even violent outburst by the mentally ill are often of short duration.  If is better to let the outburst dissipate rather than wrestle with the person who is under extreme emotional stress.  Bizarre behavior alone is not reason for physical force."

Tags: Interview Techniques, Mentally Ill Subjects, Field Interviews


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