Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill

We in law enforcement are charged with both defending the rights of the mentally ill and ensuring public safety. How we manage both responsibilities will likely be a shifting paradigm in this modern era and we must think creatively to meet the challenge.

WHIPPANY, NJ—Local mentally ill man Michael Redding, 26, announced his intention Thursday to display one or two further instances of troubling behavior before finally going ahead and carrying out what he has planned. “I’ll do a couple more clearly disconcerting things in public locations in front of people who know who I am, then that’s it—I’m going through with it,” said the severely unstable man, noting that his increasingly erratic and worrisome conduct over the past few months has so far been ignored or gone unnoticed by his family, colleagues, and therapist. “Maybe I’ll blow up and scream at an acquaintance for no reason, or I might just become totally unresponsive and withdrawn—who knows? All I can say is that I’ll throw up about two more red flags and then it will be time.” At press time, Redding reportedly finished publishing a set of disturbing thoughts on social media and verbally threatened a coworker, and is now ready to act on his plan.

                  From The Onion – America’s Finest News Source; May 9, 2013


Sure, it’s from The Onion, but satire is always rooted in truth; when you look retrospectively at some of our countries recent and infamous mass killers how many of their names could you substitute for the imaginary “Michael Redding” of this story?  When you look at their real stories, which emerged only after the smoke cleared and the damage was done, how many red flags were missed or minimized, and how many cries for help unheard?  And let’s set aside the infamous for just a second and take a look in our own backyards.  Are we missing antecedents – the behavioral or verbal red flags or desperate pleas for help – that seem so obvious in an incident’s aftermath?  The severely mentally ill we deal with on a daily basis will probably – emphasis on probably - never commit acts of mass violence so shocking as to gain national attention, but is less prominent acting out less significant to its victims, the community, or you?    

Are we doing enough as a profession to keep our communities safe, or do we sometimes become part of the problem by missing the signs of impending trouble or, when we do see them, failing to act proactively out of a belief (often mistaken) we cannot do anything without a clear and serious violation of the law or indication the person is immediately dangerous to themself or someone else, a fear of getting in trouble for violating someone's rights or sometimes, frankly, outright laziness/unwillingness to do the requisite legwork to intervene.  Even if we are limited by law or policy in the extent of our interventions there is usually something we can do, a notification or referral we can make or a relationship that can be built, that might stave off something serious in the future when we first become aware of minor problems in the present.

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A mental illness is a disorder of the brain characterized by disturbances in thoughts, feelings, or social adjustment.  The full spectrum of mental disorders range from those that are common, mild, and easily controlled to chronic, debilitating, and even life threatening.  And while the overwhelming majority of mentally ill persons are not dangerous, I’d argue the overwhelming majority of dangerous persons are in some way mentally ill. 

The brain, like any other organ, is complex and occasionally prone to disturbances and disorders that can negatively affect how it functions; when you consider the full range of its function – far and away more complex and multitasking than any other organ – and the myriad ways its biological balance can be upset, what may be most amazing is that more of us don’t seriously run off the rails.    

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