Police Encounters with the Mentally Ill

Whether a police officer is issuing a traffic ticket, calming down a frantic parent who lost their child, mediating a domestic abuse dispute or assistance a person with a possible mental illness they are constantly engaging in de-escalation.  Society expects police officers to possess extraordinary levels of professionalism, patience, and tolerance.

 According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness between 2010 and 2014, Illinois has cut spending on mental health services by 32 percent. For example, fifty percent of Chicago community mental health centers have shut down, along with 30 percent of the state facilities. For many people in Illinois dealing with mental illness may come down to calling the police or waiting possibly months to see a mental health specialist.

 Recognizing police contacts with the mentally ill are increasing at an alarming rate, many law enforcement leaders across the country are supporting and adopting de-escalation training for their officers.  This meaningful reform in policing is needed to protect both officers and the citizens they serve and to improve police-community relations.  The reform is about looking beyond what is legal but rather what is preventable (Kindy, 2015).  According to a study conducted by the International Police Association titled, “The Deafening Demand for De-escalation Training: A Systematic Review and Call for Evidence in Police Use of Force Reform” (Robin S. Engel, Ph.D., Hannah D. McManus, M.S. and Tamara D. Herold, Ph.D., 2017) used the National Consensus Policy definition of police de-escalation as “taking action or communicating verbally or non-verbally during a potential force encounter in an attempt to stabilize the situation and reduce the immediacy of the threat so that more time, options, and resources can be called upon to resolve the situation without the use of force or with a reduction in the force necessary” (2017: 2).  Police leaders encourage de-escalation training and techniques to slow down a situation, using time, distance and cover can help resolve police-citizen encounters with less use of force while increasing officer safety (Domanick, 2017, Jackman, 2017). 

Therefore, along with officers receiving de-escalation training police agencies are establishing Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs.  The programs are a collaboration of professionals committed to assisting persons with behavioral health disorders (mental illness, developmental disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and addictive disease).  Since 2003, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILETSB) has provided state-certified Crisis Intervention Team training to law enforcement officers.  It is a 40-hour block of training to recognize and address individuals in their community who have a mental illness or behavioral disability.  The officers will go through valuable exercises that simulate some of the hallucinations that individuals with mental illness may experience.   Officers must respond to a series of recorded scenarios where they are asked to perform cognitive tasks which allows them to gain insight into challenges these individuals experience. The scenarios may include suicide intervention, de-escalating a potentially violent situation, responding to a call involving a person experiencing paranoia or having a manic episode.  Today, there are an estimated 2,700 crisis intervention programs across the country. 

Domanick, Joe. 2017. How the police commission got the LAPD to buy into de-escalation. Los Angeles Magazine. July 13. Retrieved from https://www.lamag.com/mag-features/lapdde-escalation/.

Jackman, Tom. 2016a. De-escalation training to reduce police shootings facing mixed reviews at launch. Washington Post. October 15. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/de-escalation-training-to-reducepolice-shootings-facing-mixed-reviews-at-launch/2016/10/14/d6d96c74-9159-11e6- 9c85-ac42097b8cc0_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1ebe3361620d.

Kindy, Kimberly. 2015. Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide. Washington Post. May 30. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/fatal-policeshootings-in-2015-approaching-400-nationwide/2015/05/30/d322256a-058e-11e5-a428- c984eb077d4e_story.html?utm_term=.504f53f783ff

Robin S. Engel, Ph.D. University of Cincinnati Hannah D. McManus, M.S. University of Cincinnati Tamara D. Herold, Ph.D. University of Nevada, Las Vegas https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/IACP_UC_De-escalation%20Systematic%20Review.pdf

About Dr. Lynn Atkinson Tovar

Dr. Lynn Atkinson Tovar is a professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois. The former commander has done research on teen relationships and technology as well as abusive relationships. Her book "Smart Teen, Safe Teen: Respecting Relationships in Your Social Digital Life " is available at https://amzn.to/2HJsuNE

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