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.


You, as the police, are going to be that “first point of contact” in numerous mental health crises during your career.  There will be countless more cases to which you’ll respond where mental illness may not be as obvious but nonetheless pays a central role in the dynamic.  Knowing how best to respond is really not merely helpful, it is your responsibility.

Emphasizing increased education on mental illness and best practice responses

Very simply, training for yourself or your subordinates is out there.  Go find it.  Almost every agency has the resources in-house (if the department is large) or through shared usually regionally-based law enforcement training units.  If you are having trouble finding the trainings you are looking for, the training budget is strapped, or staffing precludes getting away from the street for a while, start thinking creatively.

Look online for webinars, free MOOC classes, or simply advanced articles or book ideas about the various disorders you are likely to encounter.  Look inside your agency, as well.  It’s likely you have sworn or non-sworn personnel with backgrounds or formal education in psychology, social work, sociology (which a solid criminal justice degree should be heavily rooted in), or similar disciplines where an understanding of mental illness is stressed or the ability to research the topics you are interested in has been learned; see if they would be willingly tasked with researching and developing some in-house training for their peers.

Focus on those particular disorders you are likely to run into in the course of a tour:  depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, autism, psychosis and schizophrenia, etc. to start.  Contact your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mentally Illness; they will probably have multiple resources to refer you to, and will be thrilled for the law enforcement outreach.  No matter how you get it, seek as much education as you can.

Connect with mental health providers and agencies in your community

Developing relationships with local healthcare providers and community organizations can have many benefits.  First, you may often find yourself there anyway, especially if they serve an acute population and frequently need police assistance.  Forging respectful relationships before and during initial calls for service makes easier subsequent calls.  This is mutually beneficial in an obvious way.  Beyond that, however, you can sometimes begin to build rapport with their clientele whom, let’s face it, you’ll likely have contact with in the future.  Rapport and banked trust up front can make those future contacts go more smoothly.  When you need their help, or they need yours, good working relationships increase the likelihood that help will come in timely and professional fashion.  And the possibility of mutual cooperation in training – and maybe even training each other – can meet the above “seek out education” goal.

Increase and improve your documentation and tracking efforts

Everyone has done it at some point and, if we’re all being truthful, probably at many points.  You’re running hot from call to call all day, four incomplete reports hanging over your head the boss is riding you to get done, the shift drawing to a close, and all you want to do is get out on time to make your kid’s softball game.  Such are the times it’s so easy to blow off or minimize the countless non-criminal calls for service that generate when the caller doesn’t know where else to turn, move on to the ones that most demand real police attention, and hope the radio stays quiet long enough to get caught up.

Sometimes that is completely appropriate.  But sometimes you miss the opportunity to do timely, valuable “soft policing” that may just prevent a future crime, or make your job easier in the long run.

Whatever documentation system your particular agencies use to record and track incidents – including incidents involving the seriously mentally ill that demand significant chucks of police time whether criminal in nature or not – they are useless if you don’t use them.  Often “low-grade” crimes (think disorderly conduct, minor vandalisms or very petty thefts, indirect or seemingly insignificant verbal assaults or threats) or trivial disputes, disturbances, or domestics get short shrift or “settled-at-scene/no complaints to be signed” clearances, and get cursory documentation, if at all.  These are the type of incidents where the “red flags” of an impending crisis or someone in need of intervention might be on full display, yet we miss or downplay them.

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