The Police and the Mentally Ill

An important challenge facing police forces today is how to police the mentally ill. This is a topic we have not discussed much in class, yet it is crucial to talk about since officers are often the first responders to incidents involving people with mental illnesses. Mental health facilities and services have experienced significant budget cuts in recent years and as a result force police officers to act both as law enforcers and as social workers.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year. Roughly 10 million people have reported struggling with a serious mental illness that interferes with their major life activities. In addition, 16 million people have reported having at least one major depressive episode within the past year. It is important to note that people diagnosed with a mental illness are not necessarily more likely to be violent or aggressive than people without mental illness. This is a common stereotype that stigmatizes mental illness. This stigmatization can make people more hesitant to seek treatment. However, it is true that people often do call the police when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. Because of this, it is paramount that police forces be adequately and appropriately trained to handle events involving people with mental illnesses in a way that minimizes the use of force.

Studies have shown that people with mental illness are roughly 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. About one in four fatal police encounters involve someone with mental illness. In many instances, people with serious mental illness are unable to seek treatment until their behavior attracts the attention of the police. According to the Washington Post, one-quarter of police shootings in 2015 involved people “in the throes of emotional or mental crisis.” In most of these cases the individual with a mental illness was armed but was not posing a threat to anyone but themselves. Many times police were called by relatives or bystanders worried by erratic behaviors of the mentally ill person.

In 2015, a 60-year old man named Gary Page with a long history of schizophrenia and depression in Harmony, Indiana displayed these types of erratic behaviors that caused neighbors to call the police. Someone described him as “acting crazy.” He called the police telling them that he wanted them to shoot him. When the police arrived, Page had taken a neighbor hostage. The police shot him five times in the torso and once in the head. Page’s gun was in fact only a starter pistol loaded with blanks. His threats of violence were only the product of emotional instability. Maybe if the police had been better trained for handling situations involving the mentally ill, the use of force would not have been used and Gary Page would still be alive today.

Many police departments around the country have started to adopt Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs. According to CNN, about 15 percent of police jurisdictions in the U.S. have CIT programs. These programs involve 40 hours of training to educate officers about mental health issues led by mental health professionals. This training teaches them about the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses along with the psychiatric medications used to treat them. CIT training allows officers to interact with people with mental illnesses outside of crisis situations. Individuals with mental illness do not always respond to the same de-escalation tactics that work with others. CIT training focuses on providing officers with practical techniques for de-escalating a situation with mentally ill individuals that could minimize the use of force. Some examples include keeping a safe distance, letting the person in crisis vent to them, and using “mirroring” tactics to validate the person’s feelings. These tactics are practiced in role-play scenarios in CIT training.

Studies have proven CIT training to greatly improve officers’ attitudes and knowledge about mental illness as well as reduce the risk of injury for both the officer and the individual with mental illness. The CIT Model is a worthwhile collaborative approach to safely and effectively address the needs of people with mental illnesses, connect them to appropriate services, and divert them from self-harm or the criminal justice system.

One thought on “The Police and the Mentally Ill

  • May 5, 2017 at 6:27 pm
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    This is an interesting and important topic. I was surprised to see that mental illness was only mentioned once in the 1967 task force report. In that instance, the task force report stated that people with mental illness fell under the umbrella of those who need police protection. Yet, they gave no recommendations for how police should do that.

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