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How Should Law Enforcement Handle the Mentally Ill? | U.S. PATRIOT NEWS & REVIEWS

How Should Law Enforcement Handle the Mentally Ill?

As the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments in Sheenan v. San Francisco, a case involving police response to a violent mentally ill woman, lawyers on each side will focus on whether or not officers should make “reasonable accommodations” when arresting the mentally ill. I think this is an attempt to avoid the bigger question: “What role should law enforcement play when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill?”

There are typically three types of encounters between police and the mentally ill:

  1. Casual or simple encounters which involve LEOs and a mentally ill citizen simply running into each other in public. There is no criminal activity involved and these interactions are no different than LE contact with any other citizen. These types of situations are the best chance for a positive LEO and citizen encounter, and also the best possibility for an LEO to assist a mentally ill subject in obtaining voluntary assistance if they so desire.
  2. A call for assistance with a mentally ill subject, usually from a family member or care giver, who does not know who else to contact. Unfortunately, these situations rarely work out to the satisfaction of all involved. The mere presence of an officer is liable to escalate matters, often requiring additional police response and possible arrest of the subject. Neither side is happy. Another potential outcome is the responding officer is simply unable to provide any assistance, other than a contact number for the local mental health facility, and the family feels they have been ignored. Mentally Ill SideIn those cases where it is determined an involuntary commitment is warranted, the requirements for which vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another, the proverbial can is simply being kicked down the road for a couple of days. Again, no one is happy.
  3. Responding to reported criminal activity and finding that the suspect is mentally ill. On the face, this may not appear any different than countless other calls an officer responds to – bad guy does bad thing, bad guy goes to jail. Of course, there is the possibility that the suspect may not want to go to jail, whether they are mentally ill or not, in which case there is countless case law instructing the officer on the appropriate use of force. Under current court decisions, there is no need to temper that response simply because the suspect may suffer from mental illness. After all, as the city attorneys stated in the latest case, a knife is a knife regardless of who is holding that knife. Some would even go as far as arguing that an armed mentally ill suspect is even more dangerous because of their potentially irrational response to officers on scene. But, regardless of what is allowed by law or permitted by past court decision, the use of force against a mentally ill suspect is almost never met with approval. Officers are forced to endure an investigation and public scrutiny, the suspect is killed or injured and both families suffer long term side effects. Again, there are no winners.

So, what is to be done? First, there is no doubt that officers need to receive additional training in mental illness. They need to be able to recognize the signs of mental illness, have a better understanding of how to properly engage suspects and be familiar with what additional resources are available and how to properly refer citizens to those through greater training. Second, Americans need to stop using the police to deal with the mentally ill who have not committed a crime, but have simply become a burden to their care givers.  Yes, part of an officer’s job is to serve the public, but you cannot call the police and expect to receive a mental health professional.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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1 thought on “How Should Law Enforcement Handle the Mentally Ill?

  1. First, the courts should review their own decisions about forcing the mentally ill out of facilities where they were getting good medical, mental and occupational help. The courts are the real culprit here with their decisions forcing many mental hospitals to close. Second, medications that help those with a mental health issue do work, but only if taken as prescribed. Some type of institutionalization is necessary for most people with a mental health issue to insure that they do take the meds as required.

    Getting people with mental health issues the help they need should be at the forefront of the solution continuum. Police should only be part of the picture if someone is needed to help control someone with a mental health problem.

    I learned all of this from having a family member who had a very bad mental health problem. The second he was released, even if just for a weekend, he would forget to take his medications and would become almost uncontrollable. On many occasions only the intervention of a family member defused a situation on the verge of becoming violent.

    Police are not trained, and can never be trained, to understand and handle a person with a mental health problem. They are just too diverse a group of people for someone without at least a Master’s degree in psychology to begin to understand.

    All we can do is pray, “Lord help the poor police officer who is call on to deal with a person with a mental health problem”.

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