6 reminders for contact with emotionally disturbed people
1. Size can be deceiving. Remember that even if an emotionally disturbed person is small in stature, his or her level of strength can still be extraordinary—even superhuman. If you’re larger than the person you’re dealing with, don’t immediately assume that you can command physical dominance. Whenever possible, work with back up and be prepared to use tactics that will be effective against a very strong individual.
2. Perceptions may differ considerably. Remember that your perception of an encounter may differ considerably from that of the disturbed subject you’re dealing with. Depending on their condition, they could be experience sensory anomalies—things like hearing voices or hallucinating—that can make their interpretation of what’s going on very different from reality. Take the time to read up on the signs and symptoms of mental illness or better yet consider consulting with a local mental health professional to get insights into indicators you can watch for--like paranoid comments, odd behavior patterns or physical movements specific to a particular mental disturbance--that will help clue you in to what your subject might be experiencing so you can craft your approach accordingly.
3. Pace the contact. When dealing with emotionally disturbed people a calm, calculated and controlled approach is generally best. That’s not to say that you should be dragging the contact out longer than necessary and delaying physical control, but whenever possible a slower approach may yield safer results. Sudden aggressive movements can trigger an explosive fight-or-flight response from an emotionally disturbed person. Whenever possible, use calming language and a comforting tone of voice combined with a focused but controlled physical approach. Don’t, however, let your tactical guard down. It should be clear that you’re there to do a job and you’re not going away, but that you’re also not there to harm the person you’re dealing with.
4. Patience can be priceless. This is obvious but crucial. If your contact with an emotionally disturbed person is trying your patience consider defaulting to another officer – or take a deep breath and remember that patience is a valuable tactical tool in these encounters. Losing your patience can be a big mistake in some encounters. Be prepared to be patient...it’s worth it.
5. Maintain tactical vigilance, even in a hospital. If the emotionally disturbed person you’re dealing with is transported to the hospital, remember to maintain good control tactics, even if hospital staff resists. If you feel that your subject needs to remain cuffed in order to maintain control, stand your ground. Just one example of how dangerous it can be to go against tactical wisdom occurred in New York City when a hospital X-ray technician pressured an officer into uncuffing an emotionally disturbed person. Once the cuffs were off, the subject went ballistic and attacked them both. Remember the tried and true adage: Never let your guard down. Never.
6. Get as much information as possible prior to the contact. Although it’s not always possible, try to gather as much information as you can about the person you’re about to be dealing with whenever you’re safely able to take the time to do so. Look for any insights from family, friends, and even doctors that can give you a heads up about what the subject may be suffering from and what his or her trigger points might be so you can tailor your approach accordingly.