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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

While Stolle's predicament is an unfortunate one, his experience could prove to be a valuable example for the heads of other law enforcement agencies facing similar challenges.

Patrol Response

Decisions of where to spend mental health response dollars are made way above street level. But it's street level officers who must cope with the ramifications of those decisions.

The establishment of more CIT units in more cities is imperative. But there are other things that can be done.

  • Better Education of Patrol Level Personnel

As first responders, law enforcement officers are often the first and last lines in the battle against a soul's torment. Often, it is the mentally ill who have been victimized. So it makes sense for officers to have at least some basic understanding of the variety of mental disorders, both of a permanent and temporary nature (heat stroke, diabetic reactions, for example), and an ability to differentiate between colorfully non-conformist eccentrics and those inarguably in need of immediate psychiatric intervention.

Unfortunately, for many the dividing line between "mentals" and "confrontational jerks" is best illustrated by a cop's observation that "mentals can't control when they go off or who it is in front of. Jerks can." Officers need to recognize that the differing natures of mental illnesses—be it manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, major depression, or severe anxiety—dictate differing protocols.

Officers are accustomed to tailoring their verbiage to situations, often in deference to how it will be looked upon later in court. Yet the gift of gab may never loom larger than when someone is hell-bent on hurting himself or someone else. That's when the need for considering one's words is at its most pressing and the stakes are never higher. A well-intentioned "You don't want to do this" to the wrong person may in fact escalate the incident, with the subject wanting to make it readily apparent that it is exactly what he wants to do.

A great emphasis needs to be placed on strategic and tactical considerations in dealing with the mentally ill.

The need for sworn officers to carefully consider the implications of engaging the mentally ill cannot be overstressed. Assessing the actions of Seattle officer Ian Birk following the fatal shooting of a homeless man with a knife known locally as "the Woodcarver," King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to press charges but left no ambiguity as to Birk's precipitating role in what the Seattle PD's Firearms Review Board ultimately ruled an "unjustified" shooting.

"The officer seems to have made serious tactical errors that compounded the danger to others and himself," Satterberg said. "By his own actions, Officer Birk closed the distance between himself and the man with a knife." Birk resigned before he was fired.

The Seattle case serves as a cautionary parable for other officers to avoid exacerbating a situation instead of containing it. And there are others.

Ventura County, Calif., district attorney Michael D. Bradbury tendered a similar conclusion in evaluating the shooting death of Robert Jones Jr. by Oxnard Officer George Tamayo, although in that case the shooting was ruled justified.

While Bradbury concluded that the veteran officer acted in self-defense since the officer feared for his colleagues' lives when Jones moved toward them from his bedroom closet with a kitchen knife, he made a point of asserting that officers could have dealt better with a depressed young man who needed medical treatment and was not a crime suspect.

Such shootings point out the need for officers to consider a variety of options when dealing with the mentally ill. Implicit therein is the recommendation that officers wait for health care professionals to respond; failing that, to be availed better trained themselves.

Taking a page from CIT-type training would help give officers empathy and a wider array of tools to deal with the mentally ill. For example, one of the CIT training methods used to help officers understand what it's like to be mentally ill is to have them don headsets through which aggressive voices are played while they try to perform simple tasks. Also, health care workers simulating real life scenarios mirroring field situations can pre-condition officers and immunize them to rhetoric that might otherwise be personalized when encountered in the field.

Sometimes the mere sight of a uniformed officer can heighten tensions. In certain situations wherein it is conducive to do so, telephonic contact of a emotionally compromised individual may be a prudent choice.

Desk personnel also need to be trained to communicate tactical concerns to field personnel prior to their arriving at calls involving the mentally ill. In the Oxnard case, the officers were not made aware of a warning from Jones' mother to a police dispatcher that her son disliked and distrusted police.

Implementing mandatory CIT training for all law enforcement personnel is hardly feasible, particularly when agencies must rely on outside psychology experts to facilitate courses.

"One way to incorporate CIT training is to introduce it to our FTO candidates," explains BART PD's Chief Rainey. The FTO program is a much smaller complement of personnel that actually receive that training on a yearly basis, and they are our best officers. These are the officers we want other officers to emulate, to model their careers after, so the program automatically gets more credibility. As the FTOs promote and become detectives and sergeants and other assignments throughout their careers they take that knowledge and background in crisis intervention training with them. It becomes more entrenched as part of our law enforcement culture and I think we have fostered better decision-making prospects for the future."

  • Employ a Variety of Documentation-Both to Defend One's Actions or inactions, and to Learn From

For decades, police departments have had the peace of mind that could only be afforded in being the chroniclers of their adventures. But whereas the victor once wrote the history, there is a growing presence of other media recording it. No amount of white-washed revisionism will ever erase the images of what a cell phone camera has recorded.

  • Create a System of Tracking the Mentally Ill

Better identification and tracking of the mentally ill is also suggested. Databases can track the nature of individuals' illnesses and the best protocol with which to address them. But Jessica Cruz of National Alliance on Mental Illness of California notes concerns about privacy and medical confidentiality. Voluntarily submitted information could be entered into databases that keep track of people whose psychological ideations are a matter of public concern. Volunteer civilian contacts can respond to deal with many non-violent offenders, freeing up sworn personnel to address other matters. 

New court diversion programs should be developed to provide care and treatment for those charged with low-level crimes.

  • Take Greater Precautions in Processing the Mentally Ill

Intake processing at custody facilities needs to better screen for mentally ill inmates and separate them accordingly.

"An officer educated to the signs and symptoms of mental illness can respond to a mentally ill person in a manner that will have a higher likelihood of a peaceful resolution than a resolution that involves force," says Sgt. Alex Behnen, a founding member of the Columbus, Ohio, CIT.

"A mentally ill person is not less of a human and deserves the same dignity that we would give any other citizen," he adds.

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