The relationship between law enforcement and mental health is, to say the least, fraught. It often seems that every other day we hear about a police officer shooting someone who is mentally ill or mentally disabled. Throw in the present militarization of police and the remains of a shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture, and you’ve got tragedies in the making.
The good news is that there are police departments around the country that are trying to revamp systems so that the needs of the mentally ill are considered and treated more sensitively. Part of this is in response to the fact that many jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions. Part of it seems to be an offshoot of the community policing movement. Some of the programs sound progressive or at least promising. Others may be more dubious.
The effort I read about recently that struck me as dubious is Indianapolis’s approach. As the IndyStar reported, “Ten officers with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department are testing out a tool designed to help them assess whether a person is exhibiting symptoms related to a possible mental illness.” The “tool,” or questionnaire, “is still being developed, so all officers are testing now is how easy it is to use and whether the questions that are part of the assessment aren’t too ‘technical’ or ‘cumbersome’ for officers in the field, IMPD Lt. Catherine Cummings said.” Which is probably a good thing, seeing that the tool uses “questions that medical professionals use to detect mental illnesses, according to [Paul] Babcock, [Director of the Office of Public Health and Safety (OPHS)].” It is designed to be used from a cell phone or laptop.
That does indeed sound technical and cumbersome, not to mention the fact that it is rather difficult to see how police officers would use it in the field. It’s hard to picture officers with cell phones and laptops filling out a questionnaire to determine if someone needs to go to jail or to the emergency room. The project is still in the testing phase, so it has a long way to go before it sees use in Indianapolis or elsewhere.
The Iowa approach seems more practical. It is “a response to the increased burden law enforcement agencies face in trying to make America’s frayed mental health system function. The team helps get people into treatment before they spiral further out of control and wind up arrested for behavior rooted in their mental struggles.” Police officers, often in small towns where they know the people they serve and protect, do this partially by “bringing people in for court-ordered treatment….They also provide security at a threadbare courtroom at [the local medical center], where commitment hearings are held several days a week.”
One of the deputies says he “focuses on the fact that the people he’s tracking down are experiencing mental troubles that could happen to anyone. He doesn’t want them to feel like they’re being arrested. ‘These people are not criminals,’ he said. ‘They haven’t done anything wrong. They’re people in need of our assistance.'”
Mental health advocate and activist Pete Earley sees the problem as one requiring a number of solutions: “We still need to work on building supportive housing. We still need to push for expanding problem solving dockets (mental health and drug courts). We now need our judges and prosecutors to understand that individuals charged with both misdemeanors and felonies should be eligible for diversion because it is not the crime that should be the determining factor but whether or not the accused has a criminogenic personality. (Persons with chronic, serious mental illnesses often get charged with felony assault for resisting arrest.)”
He is undoubtedly right. But most of these approaches remain rather far in the future. Finding the political, municipal, departmental, and financial will to implement them is, for many jurisdictions, simply not possible.
And of course, the problems are hardly solely the fault of law enforcement. Sensitive, caring police officers exist nearly everywhere and people who work in correctional facilities recognize that their institutions have become substitutes for mental health treatment and that this is hardly a solution.
But at least some people in some places are beginning to address the problem.