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.

If you get information that someone with whom you’re dealing might be in the situation they are because of a mental health issue, or discern or suspect it yourself, then document it!  Most agencies classify their each of their calls or reports in some manner, including those for mental health, which allows for statistical collection and analysis – mine simply uses the numeric designators of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system.   You may not have enough to force an evaluation, or to take any direct enforcement action, but you might be documenting an important piece of a bigger puzzle that will be important in the future.  It might be the piece that, although it appears innocuous now, triggers an intervention sooner to head off something much bigger later, clarifies a behavioral pattern for other officers/investigators or mental health professionals, or helps someone to overcome denial and see they need help.

There is also a tendency, once we determine or are told someone has mental illness, to hold them less accountable for criminal behavior.  Whether arrest is appropriate when someone with mental illness commits relatively minor crimes is debated in law enforcement, mental health, and corrections circles.   In our opinion, though, just because it’s debated doesn’t make it debatable.  We believe that, with only very rare exceptions, if you have probable cause to make an arrest then make it.  If someone’s mental illness is a mitigating factor, then that is for the court to address accordingly.  In fact, sometimes a failure to arrest is a disservice to your suspect, if being under the supervision of the court might be their best bet of getting the help they desperately need.  It might be the factor that heads off something much more serious.

Gun Control and the Mentally Ill, Revisited

So this brings us back to concerns we raised a couple months ago in “Gun Control and the Mentally Ill”:

“The second serious problem in trying to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is how frustratingly vague or all-encompassing the definition might become.  Generally, only those who have been adjudicated severely mentally ill by a court or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility can be found unfit and barred from getting a gun and, as most of us who work in or with law enforcement knows, the bar is set very high for either category.”

That the “severely mentally ill” should probably not be allowed access to guns is pretty universally accepted among gun control foes and advocates alike.  Perhaps more appropriately, it should read “dangerously mentally ill” instead of severely, because “dangerously” is more specific than “severely” and, statistically speaking, the vast majority of mentally ill people – and even those with “severe” illnesses – are not dangerous!

When it comes to keeping weapons away from those who should not have them, careful documentation and judicious use of enforcement powers will help to identify and hold accountable those among us who truly are dangerous.  Ideally, it provides a path of due process to better protect us from the most dangerous (as well as to protect them from themselves), while shielding those who are not dangerous from unfairly or arbitrarily having their rights stripped.  And it can even provide a “path of redemption” for when someone takes the steps to get better.  As the way states regulate who should and should not be allowed to have firearms evolve, we should be central to how those decisions are made.

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.


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