National survey details latest findings about LE response to mentally ill subjects
More than 4,200 active line officers and command personnel responded to the survey
By Chuck Remsberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Calibre Report®
An officer in Tennessee was interviewing a bed-bound complainant on a disturbance call when with a chilling cry, a male who was long off his meds for schizophrenia charged in from another room and smashed his fist into the officer’s face.
A brachial stun to the neck didn’t stop him. He knocked the officer onto a couch, disarmed him of his flashlight, and unleashed a savage blitz of blows with it to the officer’s head.
The officer wanted to shoot, but the complainant was in his line of fire. He tried to radio for help, but the attack had ripped the mic from his shirt. He discharged his TASER, but the probes failed to make an effective connection. A drive stun repelled the suspect momentarily, but when the officer tried to stand up, the assailant tackled him back onto the sofa and leaped atop him, pummeling still.
Amid a fight for life that must have seemed an eternity, the officer managed to access his sidearm and fired two rounds at the suspect clear of the complainant. When he tried to squeeze off a third, his pistol malfunctioned. Fortunately, the first shots proved fatal before the suspect could inflict further injury.
At the hospital, the officer endured more than 100 sutures to his face and head. Today, seven years later, he still suffers from “post-concussion syndrome, memory issues, headaches, and continuous ringing” in his ears.
Assessing the surprise attack that could have killed him, critics on social media have blasted him for “not taking time to evaluate and assist a person suffering from mental crisis.”
That episode is one of hundreds of up-close-and-personal accounts that surfaced recently in what is believed to be the latest and most extensive survey to date regarding interactions between LEOs and mentally ill subjects, and the outcomes, good and bad.
More than 4,200 active line officers and command personnel from a cross-section of agencies responded in recent months to a confidential, comprehensive online questionnaire designed by Lexipol, the leading content, policy and training company that recently merged with PoliceOne. Calibre Press played a key role in the study by soliciting participants through its extensive communication channels to the law enforcement community.
“With media scrutiny of the subject intensifying, we wanted to see in detail how this issue is unfolding in agencies nationwide,” said Lexipol spokesperson Shannon Pieper. “What’s the magnitude of police contact with the mentally ill? What makes these incidents so challenging? And do agency policies and training provide adequate guidance?”
Results of the survey are now available in a free white paper, “Law Enforcement Response to People in Crisis,” downloadable here.
Here’s a brief sampling of the findings and the patterns they reflect:
Ninety-nine percent of officers polled have dealt with mentally ill or crisis-deranged individuals personally or as supervisors. Sixty percent say that 11% or more of their contacts fall in that category.
Some larger agencies report that nearly half their calls involve people in short-term emotional crisis or with persistent mental issues. So-called “frequent flyers” who do not or cannot seek help are the most commonly cited frustration; officers on one department answered calls about a single mentally ill female over 100 times in just one three-month period.
Asked to name the types of calls most likely to result in contact with a mentally ill or in-crisis subject, the top three officers identified are:
- Suicide threat or attempt;
- Nuisance behavior or disorderly conduct;
- Welfare check.
Often no criminal activity is involved initially.
Mental illness indicators
The top three symptoms officers rely on to indicate potential mental illness are:
- Agitation or manic behavior;
- Self-harm or suicidal threats;
- Illogical thoughts.
While “most people with mental illness are not violent” ordinarily, situations where police are called can quickly deteriorate.
Often “traditional tactics” prove “ineffective,” the white paper points out, and officers “can be backed into situations where there is no other alternative” than use of force.
Nearly 90% of those polled say they’ve responded to calls where force was used on a mentally ill person. Like the Tennessee officer cited above, about one-third have been injured by a mentally disturbed person.
Half the chiefs and sheriffs in the survey say their agency does not have specialized responders (such as a crisis intervention team or embedded or on-call professionals) to assist officers in interacting with the mentally ill. Even where such help is available, respondents report that it typically takes from 30 minutes to more than an hour to get them on-scene, leaving first-arriving officers to cope on their own.
Six in 10 say that getting specialized resources there faster “would help them feel better equipped to deal with” these calls.
Response strategies and officer training
The vast majority of officers say they rely most heavily on two basic strategies:
- Encourage the subject to be transported to a mental health facility;
- Use de-escalation tactics.
Eighty-five percent of agencies provide at least some training on handling people in crisis, most often covering “identifying behaviors” and “de-escalation techniques.” But about one in 10 respondents say their most recent training occurred more than two years ago.
Roughly 80% of agencies have a policy for interacting with mentally ill subjects. The majority of those (85%) “encourage taking a person’s mental state into consideration prior to using force when you have discretionary time.” Most (76%) do “allow the use of force on unarmed, noncriminal mentally ill subjects,” although a significant minority of officers are unsure whether such a policy exists for their department. Only about 60% of respondents overall feel their agency’s policy is adequate in addressing mental health responses.
Most officers say they feel “prepared” to meet the challenges of mental-illness and crisis responses and that their personal experiences in general have been “favorable or ideal.” Yet a sizable minority do not feel prepared (23%) or are “unsure” of their preparation (another 17%).
Notably, officers who rated their agency’s mental illness policy as adequate are about twice more likely to feel confident about their preparation than those who rated their agency’s police as inadequate.
Lexipol supplements the report with a peppering of real-world experiences that add meaningful flavor to the statistical analyses. These include first-hand recollections of tactics that worked (or didn’t) in high-stress confrontations, descriptions of innovative crisis-response programs, and basic recommendations for strengthening departmental strategies.
The report notes that “developing a robust set of tactics for addressing the problem [of dealing with the mentally ill] is beyond the scope of this project.” The aim instead is to provide a better understanding of “how often these interactions occur, what they look like, and how officers feel about them.
“There is much more work to be done to fully understand the problem and to develop, test, and refine best practices for mental health response. Solutions will be complex and varied. Understanding the issues from the eyes of law enforcement is a good place to start.”
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