When someone is threatening to jump to their death from an overpass or a knife-wielding man is screaming he is going to kill his wife, mental health professionals are often not available or able to respond in time. Police officers are the first on scene when the mentally ill become a threat to themselves or others. How that initial confrontation is handled sets the course for all future action.
Most states require some level of mental health training for their officers. The type and amount of training varies greatly, from as little as eight hours of training to 40 (five states have no training requirement). While police departments understand the importance of having their officers trained, there is no guarantee that the first on the scene will have special insight into dealing a mentally ill person.
That lack of knowledge can be life threatening for everyone involved.
Since 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department’s SMART unit has specialized in dealing with incidences dealing with the mentally ill. The Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team is part of the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), which is a team of specially trained officers and clinicians that manage responses. The SMART team consists of an officer and a mental health professional. The team, having been trained to see situations from each other’s perspective, work in concert with the goal of deescalating the situation before anyone is harmed.
For example, a man with a knife threatening his wife could be saying he has to kill her. The police officer’s training would be about trying to quickly eliminate the threat. The mental health professional would focus on his mental state. If it was determined that the person is suffering from a psychotic disorder and is hearing voices, for example, trained officers would approach the situation with that understanding and make any necessary adjustments to their engagement.
Keeping everyone from harm, however, is just the first step.
The criminal justice system is overwhelmed by individuals suffering from mental health problems.
Many people who are mentally ill are unable to afford or access treatment, fueled largely by budget cuts which have reduced the availability of mental health services. This means that even if the officers and the courts agree that the suspect’s mental health was a direct factor in their crime, there may be no place to send them — except to jail.
A 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that more than half of all prison and jail inmates had mental health problems. These disorders ranged from mania and depression to psychotic disorders such as hallucinations and delusions. While most mentally ill people are not violent, many violent prisoners also suffer from mental illness. Furthermore, many mentally ill are unable to do things like follow directions easily, causing them to get in trouble and possibly punished more, resulting in further deterioration of their mental state.
Needless to say, prisons are not equipped to deal with the burden.
Many are incarcerated for non-violent, often minor, offenses, but because of their untreated mental condition are considered unsafe and must be put in a facility. Many are taken to emergency rooms after an incident in the hopes that they can be admitted, at least for a few days. County hospitals and mental health facilities are often filled to capacity and are unable to accept anyone except the most severe cases. In the end, all that is left is the local jail, which begins the never ending journey of the mentally ill into the criminal justice system.
An officer with Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) could be the key to stopping the cycle from beginning.
With an estimated 10 percent of all police calls nationwide related to mental health or substance abuse issues, Crisis Intervention Training can go a long way in diverting low-risk offenders from going to jail. The most common training program was developed in 1988 by Memphis police officers in an effort to reduce the number of shooting deaths of mentally ill individuals. Today, CIT International offers a 40 hour program for police departments across the nation.
The program gives information on mental illness and how to recognize it. It also introduces them to the mental health system in their area, familiarizes them with the laws and, most importantly, sits them down with mentally ill individuals and their families. They often learn that not everyone “looks” mentally ill and that it can take just a few minutes of talking to them to discover that he or she may not be processing the situation the same as the officer.
That few minutes can save lives.
In North Carolina, a 16-year old boy broke into a relative’s home to steal a cell phone. The officer who took the call had received information that the boy had a developmental disability. This did not mean the teenager didn’t know right for wrong. However, the officer took a different action after his arrest and followed up with the foster home, school officials and a behavioral health team. In the end, he was not sent to jail but into an intensive treatment program.
At 16 years old, he could have been charged with a felony.
In 2012, there were 64 mentally ill individuals killed in violent encounters with police. There is little doubt that some situations make this outcome inevitable. However, having highly skilled officers on the front line could keep these deaths at a minimum.
While there are a few bright spots in departments across the country, the sad reality remains that budget cuts for local police departments as well as the woefully inadequate mental health system creates a high risk situation for the mentally ill. If local, state, and federal officials would prioritize training, many officers could be the first step in keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system.
It would give a whole new meaning to their motto of protect and serve.