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.

National Institute of Mental Health statistics indicate that in any given year around 12.5 million people in American will suffer from some form of mental disorder and some experts suggest the actual number may be even higher. Longer term, various sources estimate that at least a quarter of all people in America will have a mental illness at some point in their life.  Again, exactly what form the disorder might take, or how severe, can fall along a vast spectrum.  Still, no one is immune and it is safe to say that all of us will be directly touched by mental illness, whether we suffer from it ourselves or it strikes someone we care about.

Mental Illness is a Law Enforcement Issue

Incidents such the mass shootings carried out by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary, James Holmes in Aurora, CO, and Jared Loughner in Tucson, AZ, among others, are etched in our collective memory and bring the issue of severe and dangerous mental illness to the public eye.  Police are going to be the first responders to tragedies such as these, which are thankfully still rare despite their high media profile.  Not so obvious are the countless and obscure dramas you attend to day in and day out that never make the headlines.  Even if you never have to respond to something as tragic as a mass shooting, if you are a cop dealing with the mentally ill is an everyday event.

An anxiety disorder or major depression is not dramatic to the outsider, but it can be to the ones living with it day in and day out, and when mental illness is experienced by anyone involved in your call it becomes an organic and critical part of that call’s dynamic. Whether responding to a crime in progress or a civil dispute, a tactically sound officer controls his or her scene and is aware of all the participants and environment.  Whether you are at a domestic trouble call or a business dispute, a fight or a driving altercation, that one or more of the participants involved might be experiencing a distorted reality or acting out because of an underlying mental illness should certainly be a part of your tactical and decision making considerations.  Think about this:  How many of your calls, in one way or another, result from failure of one or more involved parties to exercise reasonable coping and problem solving skills?  How many “repeat customers” do you get, where this week’s crisis prompts a sense of déjà vu to that of last week, or the month before, in an ongoing cycle of dysfunction?  How often are you simply presented, as a matter of course, with a list of medications someone is taking, or their clinical diagnosis, as either a reason your services are needed or “information you should know”? 

We like to think of ourselves as intrepid crime fighters, manning the thin blue line between lawless chaos and civilized order, standing for light against darkness, good against evil, as the societies “sheepdogs.”  The day-to-day reality is a little more ambiguous, isn’t it?  In the day-to-day reality most of us inhabit, the police are that and so much more.  Like it or not, the police are also (and increasingly) the first point of contact with those suffering from mental illness, who come to our attention not because they are evil but because they are hurting.  When that hurt exceeds their capacity to cope it often spills over into maladaptive behavior and becomes our problem to triage.  And sometimes that maladaptive behavior explodes onto others with shockingly destructive results.

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In last month’s column, Gun Control and the Mentally Ill, we wrote, “The extent and manner of the government’s prerogative to regulate guns and gun ownership is a debate that isn’t going away any time soon and how to do so with respect for the mentally ill among us is a crucial component of that debate.  Law enforcement must be an active, informed participant in that discussion.”  Understanding and respect for the mentally ill and their rights is critical, as is deciding how that understanding and respect must necessarily balance with public safety concerns.  We in law enforcement are charged with both defending rights 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.  Next month we will consider how we might meet these demanding tasks.


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