Online Exclusive

Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill

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 “Maybe I’ll blow up and scream at an acquaintance for no reason, or I might just become totally unresponsive and withdrawn—who knows?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.

- - - - - - - - - -

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.    

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.

- - - - - - - - - -

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.