Upping Our Game on Mental Illness

Law enforcement has an integral part to play - more integral than we maybe want to admit - when it comes to mental illness and community response. It’s time we embrace the role more fully, and “up our game” to better serve and protect.


QUESTION:  How can law enforcement, especially at the localized level, become a more integral part in the various processes involved in helping the mentally ill, protecting society from potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals, and, in keeping with the current national debate on how best to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, create a more efficient means of tracking and reporting those most dangerous individuals?

When the tragic effects of untreated or undertreated mental illness bursts into the public eye, whether in grand form on the national stage or something much less conspicuous and local, questions inevitably arise.  Why would someone do this?  What signs were missed?  How can we prevent – or at least lessen the chances – of such a thing happening again?  These questions are normal and good; looking for answers is what will drive creative solutions and, although we can never prevent every such tragedy, many of these solutions have already been producing excellent results in many jurisdictions.

The expansion of Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) comprised of sworn officers with specialized training in how to recognize and respond to mental health crises, form relationships and build rapport with the mentally ill and their families, and partner with healthcare providers and community-based services continues offers promise of continued service provision.  New police recruits tend to have more education and experience than ever, whether from college, the military or prior work, or a combination, and are coming into the field with open minds and solid foundations for learning advanced skills.  Old stigmas and misunderstandings of what mental illness is and is not are falling away. 

But there is still so much we can do better.

The CIT models – as well as other models sharing the same essential mission even if they differ in the particulars of practice – generally exhibit success as long as they are taken seriously by their members and leadership.  But even if your agency does not employ an established and tested CIT (or similar) model it can still “up its game” and improve service to the mentally ill, their families, and the greater community.  And at the micro level, you as an individual officer (or perhaps the supervisor of a team of officers or investigators) can take personal responsibility to up your own game even if your department opts not to. 

A slightly different view of policing

If you are fortunate enough to have a specialized team of officers trained in CIT response, or happen to be one yourself, then the resources to meet that responsibility are within your reach.  But if not, there are still steps you can take that go a long way toward improving the service and protection you or your team provides.  These steps are:

Emphasizing law enforcement’s role in responding to the mentally ill

In last month’s column “Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill” we wrote:

“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 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”?...”

“…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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