Policing and the Changing Needs of the Mentally Ill
- Written by Matt Kenyon
- December 8 2016
With mental health facilities and services diminishing in recent years, police are often the first responders to incidents involving people with mental illness. Departments have reported that anywhere from five to 15 percent of their annual calls involve an individual struggling with mental illness.
If officers don’t have the proper training, these situations can quickly get out of hand. Studies have shown that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other suspects. According to the Washington Post, a quarter of police shootings in 2015 involved people with mental illness.
Police departments should make it a priority to train officers in how to properly handle cases involving mental illness. Here are three ways to reduce the chances of injury or death during police encounters with the mentally ill:
Implement Crisis Intervention Training
Thousands of police departments around the country have adopted Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs. CIT involves 40 hours of training (often led by mental health professionals) to educate officers about mental health issues. CIT focuses on practical ways to de-escalate a situation. Individuals with mental illness don’t always respond to the same de-escalation tactics that work with others, so it’s important for officers to learn effective approaches in order to protect themselves and the people they serve. CIT lets officers practice these tactics in role-play scenarios, meet people with mental illnesses outside of crisis situations and learn about mental health resources in their area.
Form partnerships with the local mental health community
Training will help officers effectively defuse situations involving mentally ill individuals, but officers also need to know how to help the person once the incident is resolved. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that every year, 2 million people with mental illness get put in jail. This isn’t a long-term solution, as the mental health condition of these individuals often worsens in jail.
Instead of defaulting to arrest, police departments should partner with the mental health community in their area to make sure people receive the care they need.
Revisit use of force policies
Recent court cases have mandated that law enforcement should be especially sensitive to the use of force in situations involving mental illness. The judges in these cases strongly discouraged the use of weapons against those with mental illness, especially if they only pose a danger to themselves. Mental health considerations should be included in the department’s use of force policies. The policies should emphasize the sanctity of human life, focus on de-escalation and urge officers to go above and beyond to avoid using force.
With proper training, strong partnerships and effective policies, police departments can make sure their officers are equipped to serve and protect every member of the community.