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You Are Not a Psychologist

But as ill equipped as you are to cope with the mentally ill, you often find yourself playing the role of therapist on the street.

March 19, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Long deemed an amalgam of social worker and guidance counselor, the police officer has also been perceived to be something of a psychologist. The public has come to this belief because of the inordinate amount of experience most cops have dealing with human behavior.

But hard-earned insight into the vagaries of the human mind can only take the average officer so far. As the psychological impairments of those he or she comes into contact with become more acute, it's less likely that an officer will be successful dealing with them.

Officers are not mental health professionals. They can't dispense psychotropic medications to people in desperate need of them, so they are left to resort to their training, which primarily involves control and force.

All of this is to say that the public expects officers to cope with the mentally ill on the street, both protecting the disturbed and the public itself. But it sends officers into this role with very little training. Then it blames the officers for bad outcomes.

And the public has no inhibition at scrutinizing a cop's actions and assigning guilt for such bad outcomes. At worst, the ensuing backlash garners bad press, community resentment, litigation, and ruined careers. At best, it sparks an impetus for changes in professional practices. From the 1970s shooting of Eula Love by LAPD officers to last summer's ill-fated confrontation between Fullerton, Calif., officers and a homeless man, incidents involving law enforcement and psychologically compromised indviduals have become headline news. And they have become all the more frequent.

7 Percent

The growing recognition of a need for change in dealing with the mentally ill stems, in part, from other controversies, as well. Individuals whose longstanding mental illnesses were better recognized than addressed have been responsible for the deaths of innocent strangers.

Laura Wilcox and Kendra Webdale are the eponymous namesakes for laws specifying judicial power to commit or force treatment on severely mentally ill people who refuse care. Laura Wilcox was shot and killed by a man whose family's efforts to have him treated had been refused by him; Kendra Webdale was shoved into the path of a New York City subway by a man who'd been dismissed by local psychiatric facilities with little or no medication.

Unfortunately, such laws may be applicable only under certain conditions, where authorized, statutory compliance varies, as well. Some areas—Orange County, Calif., for example—have flat out taken "Laura's Law" off the table. And regardless of the laws and the impetus for them, a common denominator undercuts their prospects for success: money.

The lack of funding to address problems associated with the mentally ill predates even the sweeping changes instituted by President Ronald Reagan that ultimately saw a 40 percent drop in the number of beds in public mental hospitals. The lack of mental health treatment facilities pushed many men and women out onto the streets, a displacement that has often proved a mere layover for what would be their eventual home: a jail cell.

Studies indicate that in U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000, nearly seven percent of all police contacts involve a person believed to have a mental illness. Studies have shown that officers in Memphis, Knoxville, and Birmingham are likely to have contact with a mentally ill individual about six times per month. The New York City Police Department responds to a call dispatched as involving a person with mental illness every six minutes.

Such are the reasons that courts have revolving dockets and custody facilities embrace a "we'll leave the light on" philosophy. It is part and parcel why Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, Riker's Island Jail in New York City, and Chicago's Cook County Jail are the three largest "psychiatric facilities" in the United States. And of course, it's officers on the street who are taking these disturbed people into custody, sometimes with disastrous results.

New Approaches

Einstein postulated that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Such wisdom has not been lost on forward thinking law enforcement agencies such as the Memphis Police Department.

As far back as 1967, studies were conducted on police interactions with the mentally ill. By 1988, a Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) was implemented to provide a law enforcement-based crisis intervention training program. CIT programs bring law enforcement together with mental health care providers, mental health advocates, and government and judicial officials to allow first responders to respond safely and effectively to situations involving mentally ill.

Memphis CIT has served as the model for similar programs throughout the law enforcement community. In Memphis alone, injuries to individuals with mental illnesses caused by police decreased by nearly 40 percent; the deployment rate of TACT (SWAT) calls decreased by nearly 50 percent. Retired Memphis PD Major Sam Cochran, who helped start the program and continues to promote it, notes that there are now some 2,000 such teams across the country.

In the San Francisco area, new Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Chief Kenton Rainey says he understands the value of the CIT model. That understanding comes from experience. In his previous duty with the Ventura County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, Rainey dealt with cadres of homeless individuals living in river beds within a flood control district between Oxnard and Ventura. Ordered to bulldoze the makeshift communities, his officers reported that homeless veterans in the area used booby traps to protect them from vagrants with mental illnesses.

"It was definitely an officer safety issue," notes Rainey. "Once I went to Memphis and looked at their CIT model, I was sold from that point on."

Given the inarguable success of CIT teams and their abilities to mitigate the loss of life, one would think dealing with the mentally ill would be a bigger priority for law enforcement.

It isn't. And it's not because administrators are apathetic on the matter. Even though they recognize that increasingly their agencies have become de facto mental health services most chiefs and sheriffs are not happy about the matter or in a position to adequately address it.

Discussing the incarceration of the mentally ill, Framingham, Mass., Deputy Police Chief Craig Davis told a WWLP reporter, "It's really not the appropriate response for these folks. They don't belong in a jail cell. It's just a waste of resources, there's nothing that ever comes as a result of it.  The person isn't offered any treatment."

Certainly Virginia Beach County, Va., Sheriff Ken Stolle recognizes as much. Advised that city officials had voted to cut $121,596 from the city's mental health budget, Stolle offered to divert an equivalent amount from his jail reserve fund to offset the mental health cuts. Stolle's explanation: "The money being cut would dramatically impact the people coming into my jail with mental illness.... This is money well spent, and it will decrease the money I'd spend housing them."

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

MSerrano @ 3/20/2012 6:28 PM

My agency, along with all other agencies in our county, use a program known as the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT). A PERT unit consists of an officer, with specialized training, and a licensed (RN, MFT, LCSW, etc) mental health clinician. These units respond to calls involving persons in distress. The clinicians have access to the county mental health computer system in the field & can review patient history prior to contacting the subject (if time permits). Having worked PERT for several years I can attest to its benefits. The 40-hour PERT academy is open to officers & dispatchers and is something I highly recommend to other officers. PERT aims to handle situations without using force if possible. When a use of force is unavoidable our agency turns to officers trained in Crisis Response Team (CRT) measures. Theses resources have resolved many situations peacefully or with minimal force having been applied. I recommend officers seek knowledge about mental illness even if their agency does not provide it. It could literally save a life, possibly your own.

DaveSAM25G @ 3/20/2012 9:14 PM

A very timely article indeed and much needed clarification on limitations through training. While things have progressed steadily in this area we still have not truly figured it all out the mind and emotions. I can say from the late 60's early 70's when then the academy western state taught this as "Handling abnormal people Part I & II. I read of this recent study also in Sheriff (NSA) here is a link to the article for educational purposes:

The Impact of Mental Illness on Law Enforcement Resources

survey data from a graduate thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security


Michael C. Biasotti, M.A.

Chief of Police

New Windsor, New York

Donald Turnbaugh @ 3/30/2012 7:54 AM

CIT is recognized in 40 states. CIT has been in Florida since 1997, where over 10,000 law enforment officers have received the 40-hour training. CIT changes the face of mental illness in the community. CIT International, Inc. ( is the only organization devoted to the promotion of CIT nationwide. Join the movement!

Donald Turnbaugh, Board Member, CIT International

Michael Woody @ 3/31/2012 9:37 AM

Since 2000 Ohio has instituted the CIT Course in over 400 law enforcement agencies, training 5000 sworn officers to date and having a regular opportunity to go through this state-of-art, empathy building, officer safety, EDP safety learning experience in 77 of our 88 counties! And we think of CIT as more than just training as the "T" stands for TEAM. So, on a lot of departments they may put all officers through the course but only the ones best suited to handle these type of calls get them. This repitition is what makes this select group experts at handling these situations. Special people need and deserve special officers.

Randy @ 11/27/2012 4:33 AM

Lets all remember something and keep it always close, it is not the officers fault the Mental charged him. I don't care if he got to close, I don't care if he was intimidating with his presence, it's not the Officers fault ! We have a CIT unit, I believe in it ....however we have to change the attitude that these Officers are perfect, they never miss a clue and they are in an Office with a patient on a couch under medication, NO , we're in a 7/11 or a trailer park and he has a knife or a gun. The cops are human beings as well, any police administrator who can not remember what it's like to negotiate with a man in a deadly force situation should try to remember what it's like and those who have never done it , shouldn't have excepted your promotion and to the mental health advocates .... We're trying but we're put in a bad spot out there.... Train us, work with us but unless you're the on the block with us , don't condem us , the bottom line .... While on duty a Mentally Ill person charged him with a knife or a gun , now we will deal with that so let's don't forget what it was like police administrator .

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