Policing the mentally ill

Policing the mentally ill is one of the biggest challenges facing officers today. Here are some of the most effective tactics and best practices.

December 22, 2020

Article highlights

  • What training you need to consider for your department
  • De-escalation, use-of-force, and how to work with the local mental health community

Policing the mentally ill is one of the biggest challenges facing police forces today.

Officers are often the first responders to incidents involving people with mental illness. Mental health facilities and services have seen significant budget cuts in recent years. So officers often end up acting both as law enforcement and as social workers.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.8 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year. Almost 10 million people report struggling with a serious mental illness that interferes with their major life activities. And 16 million reported having at least one major depressive episode within the past year.

People with mental illness aren’t necessarily more likely to violent or prone to criminal behavior than anyone else. However, when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, people nearby often call 9-1-1.

Law enforcement agencies have reported that anywhere from five to 15 percent of their annual calls involve an individual struggling with mental illness. These calls may include a missing person, criminal activity, erratic behavior, or even someone threatening to harm themselves or others.

In any case, it’s paramount for law enforcement departments to provide their officers with thorough policy and training for policing the mentally ill.

Mental illness and police use of force

If officers don’t have proper training, confrontations involving people with mental illness can escalate quickly. This can put everyone involved in danger.

Studies show that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other suspects. 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 Post reported, the individual in question was armed, but police officers weren’t responding to reports of a crime. “More often, the police officers were called by relatives, neighbors or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically,” the Post report states. “More than 50 people were explicitly suicidal.”

This, and other similar reports have prompted renewed discussions about policing the mentally ill. Departments have realized the importance of teaching officers to recognize the signs of mental illness.

Effective programs and training can help officers de-escalate situations and get people the help they need.

Best practices for policing the mentally ill

Mental illness varies in nature and severity. And drug and alcohol abuse may make symptoms of mental illness worse. Every situation police come across will be unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to effectively policing the mentally ill.

Here are a few tactics and best practices for policing the mentally ill:

Implement crisis intervention training

Thousands of police departments around the country have adopted Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs. According to CNN, about 15 percent of police jurisdictions in the U.S. have CIT programs. That’s about 2,800 programs, and the number is growing.

CIT programs involve 40 hours of training to educate officers about mental health issues. The sessions are often led by mental health professionals.


The training teaches officers about the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and the psychiatric medications used to treat different mental health problems. CIT training allows officers to meet people with mental illnesses outside of crisis situations. It also provides information about mental health resources in the area.

CIT and de-escalation

Much of the training 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.

It’s important for officers to learn practical approaches to protect themselves and the people they serve. CIT training teaches officers to keep a safe distance, let the person in crisis vent, and use “mirroring” tactics to validate the person’s feelings.

In CIT training, officers practice these de-escalation techniques in role-play scenarios.

Studies have shown that CIT training improves officers’ attitudes and knowledge about mental illness. It reduces the risk of injury for the both the officer and the individual with mental illness and also reduces arrests.

Police officers can use the de-escalation techniques they learn in CIT in any tense encounter, even if the situation doesn’t involve a mental health crisis.

Many law enforcement leaders suggest that all police officers have some form of training in policing the mentally ill. But CIT can help develop specially trained officers who can take the lead on calls involving mental illness.

“There’s all kinds of specialization in law enforcement,” one department leader told The New York Times. “We’ve got bomb technicians, narcotics, robbery. I want all the officers present at a scene to understand that this CIT officer is the leader. That represents clarity, and responsibility brings about a level of accountability.”


Revisit use-of-force policy and training

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.

Policing the mentally ill has become a focal point of discussions about police use of force. Police departments around the country have been rethinking their use-of-force policies and training.

Many recent publications – including IACP’s National Consensus Policy on Use of Force – have emphasized de-escalation techniques.

De-escalation is of particular importance because people facing a mental health crisis may react to force or intervention in unexpected ways.

Untreated mental illness can lead people to behave erratically or disruptively. Some individuals may have difficulty responding to directions.

If police aren’t trained in mental health issues, they may interpret these actions as defiance or resisting arrest. Things can escalate quickly.

Police departments should have specific policy and training on policing the mentally ill. But mental health considerations should also be included in the department’s use-of-force policy.

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 in any situation unless absolutely necessary.

Form partnerships with the local mental health community

Law enforcement leaders are quick to point out that CIT programs aren’t a fix-all. Training can help officers effectively defuse situations involving mentally ill individuals. But after they resolve the incident, officers also need to know how to help the person involved.

Often, people with severe mental illnesses end up getting arrested instead of getting help. 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. CIT training can help point officers to resources in their area.

Of course, police aren’t social workers. Officers may not have the capacity to follow up with people struggling with mental illness. Some departments address this issue by partnering with licensed mental health professionals to form a civilian mobile crisis team (MCT).

First, CIT-trained officers secure the scene, then they call in the civilian personnel to follow up. MCTs can assess the needs of the individual in question, and make sure that person gets helps. They can make sure the person in question gets to a mental health facility, refer them to a counselor or psychologist, or provide other follow-up services.

MCTs can serve as a bridge between the police and mental health organizations. But departments should make sure that all officers are aware of mental health resources.

(This can help officers in responding to calls, but it’s also important for them personally, as statistics have shown that police have a higher rate of suicide than the general population.)

In the end, the goal of police work is to help keep people safe and make the community a better place.

Policing the mentally ill is an important part of that. With proper training, strong partnerships, and effective policies, police departments can make sure officers are equipped to serve and protect every member of the community.

Learn more about the 12 law enforcement policies your agency needs today. 

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