Police Procedures for Dealing with Mental Illness

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Familiarity with police procedures for dealing with mental illness is an important component of most police training programs. In the 1970s many psychiatric institutions were closed, and their patients were released to local communities. Because of a lack of psychiatric resources, police officers took over the role of first responders in mental-health emergencies. Officers need to understand some basic concepts that shape agency policies and practices.

Familiarity with police procedures for dealing with mental illness is an important component of most police training programs. Police work is no longer limited to fighting crime and apprehending criminals. Nowadays police officers often serve as first responders in mental-health crisis situations.

The reasons go back to the 1970s, when the United States made far-reaching changes in its policies for dealing with mental illness. There were permanent closures of many psychiatric facilities that used to confine and treat citizens with mental illness. Medical professionals hoped that communities would provide humane alternatives to the abusive practices of some of these mental hospitals.

But the new policies did not meet expectations. One major problem was funding problems that prevented construction of local facilities for treating and housing citizens with mental illness. With no place for psychiatric patients to go, communities saw an increase in homeless populations and mental-health crises. Police officers often found themselves serving as first responders to mental-health crises.

The problems have persisted, and today the largest mental-health institutions in the United States are found in city jails in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other large metropolitan areas. Dealing with the mentally ill has become a routine task for many police officers, and training programs often include police procedures for dealing with mental illness. Although these procedures vary from agency to agency, they generally share some basic concepts and guidelines:

  • The Baker Act is an emergency procedure for temporary detention of citizens who present a risk to society or to themselves. Citizens can be detained, evaluated, and treated for a short period even if they do not wish to be hospitalized.
  • Mental illness is not a crime, and officers should employ de-escalation strategies before resorting to an arrest.
  • Although mental illness patterns can be bizarre and frightening, most people with mental illness aren’t dangerous.
  • Whenever possible, medical professionals should assist law-enforcement officers in dealing with citizens who are experiencing a mental-health crisis.
  • Mental illnesses have a variety of causes, including traumatic events, life changes, and substance abuse. Some physical diseases can trigger mental illness.
  • Mental-health crises often occur when patients—especially those diagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis—stop taking their prescribed medications.
  • Elderly citizens sometimes experience dementia in connection with Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and other medical problems.
  • Encounters with the mentally ill can be time-consuming.
  • When dealing with a person who is mentally ill, police officers should go slowly, reassure the patient, and try to elicit cooperation before resorting to force.
  • Officers need to be familiar with the mental-health services available in their jurisdiction.
  • Experienced officers who know the community can be a useful resource for new officers who are learning how to deal with citizens who have mental illness.
  • It’s important to follow agency procedures designed to protect the patient, the officer, and the public at large.
  • Procedures often require a police backup and EMS assistance.
  • Writing an accurate and detailed police report is an important step in the procedure for dealing with a mental-health crisis.
  • At a Baker Act hearing, patients may deny that they’re suffering from mental illness. Details in the police report may help make a case for detention or treatment.

A useful starting point for exploring the role of police in mental-health emergencies is Booked for Safekeeping, a 26-minute black-and-white film available free on YouTube (https://youtu.be/pOd1fUclz4A). Although some of the terminology in the film is outdated, it features police officers effectively dealing with citizens in crisis and can be a useful starting point for a discussion about police procedures for dealing with mental illness.

 

Stoney, G. (Director). (1960). Booked for Safekeeping [Motion picture]. USA: Louisiana Department of Mental Health.

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