Homer was delusional, to put it mildly. A mental patient who’d wandered off from a minimum-security treatment facility in Arizona, he stood in an isolated patch of desert, arms outstretched, eyes riveted to the sky above, screaming from his very core in mortal terror.
In his distorted mind, giant thunderhead clouds overhead were the buttocks of “Mother God,” coming down to suck him up through her enormous anus.
He was so intensely caught up in that illusion that a mental health worker who approached him could not break through to him verbally to establish communication and was reluctant to go hands-on for fear of igniting a violent reaction.
What the aide finally used to penetrate Homer’s cognitive cacoon was a simple but remarkably effective technique for capturing the attention of some mentally ill subjects that you may find worthwhile to add to your tactical toolbox.
“The technique is well-known among mental health professionals,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, who recently cited Homer’s case in a discussion of the delusional mind. “But it is rarely taught to LEOs. This is unfortunate, because this tactic can be very helpful when you have to deal with people in altered mental states.”
Lewinski has regularly passed the tactic along to cops-in-training at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he was a professor in the law enforcement department before retiring earlier this year to devote full time to his renowned Force Science Institute.
Typically, Lewinski explains, you end up having to deal with delusional or hallucinating subjects because they are creating some kind of scene or disturbance in public or are exhibiting private behavior that family, neighbors, or perhaps a landlord find frightening or enormously frustrating and unable to control. They may be under a temporary chemical influence, or they may be permanently mentally ill, in which case they are probably off their prescribed psychotropic medication(s).
Unless they are life-threatening and must be immediately controlled by Taser, firearm, or overwhelming physical force, your challenge is to establish contact, then build communication and rapport, and influence the subjects toward some positive resolution. If you cannot make contact, then you can’t establish communication, can’t build rapport, and can’t influence them.
“That’s no small assignment,” Lewinski says, “because if they’re in the thrall of a fantasy created in their own head, they’re operating largely in a different universe with a different reality from yours. Words alone may not reach them and, depending on their mental state, touching them can be risky because it may be misinterpreted as an assault. Yet if you can’t communicate and build rapport, you can’t influence them.”
The trick—with the right timing—is to break into their delusional focus and force them to pay attention to you.
What often works is this: At a point when the subject is not looking at you, yell as loud as you can and simultaneously clap your hands together as forcefully as you can. It seems to work best if you don’t shout a specific word or phrase but just blast out a strong, emphatic gutteral outburst from your throat—a primitive, animal sound, so to speak.
Lewinski explains: “Even though people are in a delusional state, they tend to maintain some sort of filtering system on the periphery of their consciousness that allows them to perceive, at least tenuously, some of what’s going on in the environment around them.
“It’s hard for humans and animals to understand unfamiliar noises that suddenly occur. They tend instinctively to look around to seek out an explanation for what just happened.
“That’s when their eyes may land on you, opening the door a bit for contact. They may not even realize why they’ve looked at you, but just grabbing their attention momentarily can break the self-focus of their delusion enough that you can start working with them.
“Of course, if the subject sees you when you holler and clap, he’ll know the source of the noise and won’t be diverted. That’s why timing is important. And once he looks at you, you’d better know what to do next.”
When the subject’s attention swings to you, “you need to have a calm, friendly face and demeanor,” Lewinski says. “You want to project that you are there to help, not to harm or hassle as you work to build rapport.”
Offering a drink of water or other non-caffeinated beverage may be an effective opening gambit, Lewinski finds, as “street people in particular are often dehydrated and thirsty. Questions that convey interest and empathy, spoken in a soothing voice, will encourage them to start talking about their distress. Then you’ll start picking up cues that can help in influencing a resolution.”
If the subject is hearing disturbing voices that are confusing or frightening him, for example, you may be able to persuade him to let you transport him to a treatment facility where people can help him eliminate that symptom. If the subject is homeless and it’s a bitterly cold day, offering to take him someplace where he can get warm may win him over.
“It serves your own purpose as an officer to get good at communicating and persuading people to do something or not to do something, because you’ll then have less fighting and run less risk of getting injured,” Lewinski says.
What if the shout-and-clap technique doesn’t work?
“Then you know you may be headed for trouble,” Lewinski says. “If it’s going to work, you know almost immediately. If it doesn’t, that’s a good diagnostic cue that the person is probably not open to verbal intervention.
“That’s the point where you need to rally your forces, if adequate backup isn’t there already. The more officers you have then, the more likely you are to get compliance or be able to build a protective perimeter so the subject can be contained while the situation defuses. If use of force is necessary, the less chance there’ll be that either the subject or officers will be injured. One-on-one physical confrontations with delusional people present the greatest danger for you and the subject, because of the intensity necessary to control a resistant individual.”
One common mistake, Lewinski says, is displaying a firearm to delusional people, thinking that will persuade them to cooperate. “A person in his right mind will realize that having a gun pointed at him may result in his being shot. But it doesn’t have the same impact or recognition to a person who’s disconnected from reality. If they’re focused on their fantasy, they may not even perceive it.”
Likewise, customary pain-compliance techniques may not be effective because the subject may not react to pain during his disconnect from reality.
You’re probably better off trying a benign intervention strategy like shout-and-clap, while being prepared to escalate force quickly if a volatile situation suddenly goes south.
“And remember,” Lewinski cautions, “on many beats you’ll encounter the same delusional people repeatedly. They’ll remember the approach you took with them. For your own safety, it’s better to have them associate you with being calming, understanding, and friendly than with being a threatening hard-ass.”