Revamping Police Response to Mental Health: Alternatives to Arrests

Mental health issues are prolific today, with an estimated one in five adults in the U.S. experiencing mental illness annually, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). From living with depression and anxiety to suffering from serious mental conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and more, people affected can be found in all ages, races, income levels and religions, NAMI reports.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have had a “recent history” of a mental health issue, and 49% and 60% experienced symptoms of mental illness, respectively, in a seminal 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.* Increased mental health issues translate to more complex challenges in policing, not to mention increased public scrutiny regarding how police are handling mental health-related calls.

When responding to a potentially dangerous situation, officers must follow the law and keep the public safe from individuals who may cause harm to themselves or others. However, in recent years, several officer-involved shootings of individuals who were diagnosed with a mental illness have garnered national headlines, the Los Angeles Times reports. As a result, police departments, unions and criminal justice leaders are focusing on how to better prepare officers for mental health-related calls.

While the current trend is serious, the situation is not hopeless. In fact, police departments have begun implementing two key strategies to improve police response: improving specialized training and developing partnerships with mental health professionals.

Mental Health Training

Preparing police officers to respond to people with mental health issues requires arming them with the tools to not only assess if someone has a mental health condition, but also to understand how to respond to that condition.

A case study of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Model found promise in the approach, which offers 40 hours of specialized training, offered voluntarily, to a group of officers willing to embrace the change in procedure, and a partnership with community organizations as part of a CIT team. At the helm of the training are police trainers, mental health professionals and consumer family advocates, coaching police officers to understand signs and symptoms, treatment, disorders, legal issues and practices to de-escalate situations. Training also examines substance abuse, medication and risk assessment. Police are trained to understand community resources that can offer support for mental health-related calls. Scenario-based training provides experience in the classroom and the program has recently expanded to a more focused training for two at-risk audiences: youth and veterans, according to the University of Chicago.

Training shouldn’t only be geared at the forces on the ground, Michael Thompson suggests in Scientific American. Instead, at the top, executives can also participate in a better understanding of policing mental health, advocating for a thoughtful response. Additionally, training can be conducted for call dispatchers, who can better inform responding police officers if there are signs of mental health issues in callers.

Pairing Police Officers with Mental Health Professionals

Although training plays a crucial role in informing police response to people with mental issues, community partnership is essential to creating a unified system that may be able to reduce unnecessary violence and vicious cycles of incarceration for mental health patients. The One Mind Campaign by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which incentivizes agencies for committing to four practices aimed at improving the interaction between police officers and people with mental illness, requires participants to foster a relationship with one – at a minimum – local mental health organization and announce the partnership publically. Through this relationship, the goal is for police policy and training to be informed by mental health professionals, with the goal of providing alternatives to arrest.

In other instances, police forces are bringing mental health professionals alongside police responders. In Rochester, Minnesota, a social worker joins a police officer responding to mental health calls. During the pilot program, social worker Megan Schueller responded to calls and helped officers understand what the person may be suffering from, what kind of care he or she may have received in the past and recommendations on the best course of action – alternatives to the emergency room or jail. It’s all in an effort to de-escalate encounters with people with mental health issues, according to Minnesota Public Radio. In just four months, the number people who called dispatch to report a mental health crisis and were able to remain at home with support has doubled, reaching 70%. In addition, this customized approach to people with mental health issues reduced routine calls.

In San Antonio, a specialized six-person mental health unit answers emergency calls where mental health issues may be involved, with the intent to help, instead of jail, the people they’re called to respond to. With the creation of the mental health unit, San Antonio’s Bexar County reduced its jail occupancy from straining to under capacity, saving the city $50 million dollars over the past five years, according to The Atlantic. In partnership with the county jail, mental-health department, criminal courts, hospitals and homeless programs, the mental health unit strives to find a better solution than jail by better understanding people in mental health crises and routing them to a place best aimed at supporting them. For example, in San Antonio, police can leave cases at the Restoration Center, which developed an efficient system for police to admit charges quickly, and can offer support through its psych unit, medical clinic and space for sobering.

A newfound perspective, both through focused training and support from mental health professionals, is positioned to increase safety for officers and the people they respond to, reduce heavy cost burdens on jails and provide a more holistic solution for people facing mental health challenges.

*This report is the most recent study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and is still referenced across publications today.

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