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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

"Increased adrenaline (causes) insensitivity to pain."

"What works best and what is most beneficial is patience and communication."

Unfortunately, these concepts are not well understood by street officers and the obvious solution to that critical lack of understanding is relevant training.  Some police departments have developed specialty units for responding to the mentally ill and these have been quite successful where and when they are used.  A problem, however, is that they are typically not the first responders and it is the initial officers on the scene who have to stabilize the situation.  If those who arrive first are not sufficiently trained to achieve stability, the encounter may quickly escalate into a shooting.

Some training that is currently provided to officers may actually exacerbate an encounter with a mentally ill person, particularly if that person has a knife.  Since police trainers adopted the so-called "21-foot rule," officers have been taught that anyone within that distance, who is armed with a knife, may be shot in self-defense.  Had I been similarly trained, when I was on the street, I might have shot a mentally ill person myself, but fortunately, the outcome was different.

I was dispatched to an apartment where a person was reported to be acting bizarre and when I knocked at the door, it was opened by a woman holding a steak knife.  Under today's training scenario I should have immediately drawn my gun and shot her at such close range.  Instead, she began using the knife to spread peanut butter on her hair and I responded by asking her what she was doing.  She replied that she was making a sandwich and so I next asked her if she was hungry.  When she said that she was, I suggested that we go to lunch together and thus became the start of her transport to a mental health facility (in a further violation of today's more dogmatic training, I did not handcuff her either).

It is not unusual for the mentally ill to display a knife or a club, when they fearfully and predictably react to an officer's "command presence," but does that justify shooting them?  A better understanding of the dynamics of the mentally ill, through training, can help to resolve such encounters with less violent results.

It is still not well understood by many officers that oleoresin capsicum (OC) aerosol spray does not work well, if at all, on the mentally ill and that its use "may actually exacerbate" resistance.  Complete resistance to pain and what is often described as "superhuman" strength are characteristics of the mentally ill.  When training has forewarned officers with this knowledge, they will be unlikely to resort to OC and then find themselves in a life-threatening physical struggle that should have been avoided.  There are, however, other less-lethal force alternatives that may be appropriately introduced, after a person armed with an edged or impact weapon refuses to submit, and those include:

The Taser electronic restraint device will render a  suspect incapacitated without resistance but has a limiting range of only 12 feet (a newly introduced Advanced Taser M26 ad advertises a range of 21 feet);

Stun-bags fired from 12 gauge (or 37-40 mm) shoulder weapons can be delivered with accuracy out to a range of 50 feet and deliver a substantial body blow, not unlike being struck by a baton, from a safe distance.

These weapons can be particularly useful, in resolving attempted "suicide by cop" standoffs, for officers who decline to fulfill the would-be victim's death wish.  It must always be remembered, in such cases, that the "mission is to prevent self-destructive behavior" and not escalate the encounter into a "justified" shooting.

A term for exacerbating danger, by failing to utilize "time, talk and tactics," is "officer-created jeopardy."  Some researchers have even suggested that "hasty cops who force confrontations with emotionally disturbed persons and who consequently must shoot them to escape uninjured have used unnecessary force."  Whether excessive or not, in the final analysis, no reasonable officer should want to use any force, deadly or otherwise, if there is the alternative of taking the time to talk and exercise other options.

It is well accepted, by trained negotiators, that "trying to resolve any problem or crisis too quickly will have negative results."  Accordingly, and despite some delay, the ultimate outcome will consume far less time and expense than yet another shooting caused by inadequately trained officers taking too precipitous an action.  There are no shortcuts for safely taking the mentally ill into protective custody.

D.P. Van Blaricom is a retired chief of police, a nationally known police practices expert and an occasional contributor to POLICE.


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