Police Officers & Those in a Mental Health Crisis
By Shirley Davis


There is considerable media coverage in the United States of what has been termed police brutality towards those who live with mental health conditions. I have watched this with growing concern. In my opinion much of what occurs directly correlates to the training officers receive. And there is a vast misunderstanding of the behaviors of people living with severe mental conditions.

What police officers learn

During their training, police officers learn to use tactics to quickly gain the upper hand in a potentially dangerous situation. They learn to use an authoritative voice, demanding obedience. In training scenarios, they receive instructions on how long to wait for a response from a suspect and they learn what constitutes resisting arrest. In normal situations, these well-tested tactics work very well. However, when dealing with a mentally compromised person, they can be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.

A compromised ability to respond

A friend of mine once spoke to me about her son who lives with schizophrenia. She explained that he, and people like him, when in an active relapse, are unable to process information quickly. She also told me that when in an active psychosis, he can often take up to twenty minutes to understand or process instructions. So, she was worried that if he were ever in a situation where he was confronted by a police officer demanding he do something, he would appear to be disobeying. And she felt great concern that in such a case her son would be in grave danger.

She reiterated that it isn’t that her son doesn’t want to respond or comply, he simply cannot.

There is an added problem. There are many mental health disorders that can leave a person vulnerable, not only to the untrained officer, but to predators as well. Unscrupulous people are more likely to harm a person suffering dissociation, confusion or in an active psychosis. Such a person needs to be protected and not to be treated with anger.

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Crisis intervention training

I participate in crisis intervention training (CIT). This is a program where police officers, and others involved with the legal system, receive guidance on how to handle a person experiencing a mental health crisis. As someone living with a severe mental illness myself, I can teach about my own disability. I can answer questions and offer my story on how to treat others with my condition. During this training, I have had the honor to sit and speak for several hours with these keepers of the peace. I have learned as much about them as they have about me.

I have to admit, my first visit to CIT  was a bit frightening for me. All my life I had been taught that officers of the law are huge authority figures. The badged uniforms they wear made me feel intimidated. However, after a few hours of speaking with these fine people, I realized they are only human. They have problems at home and bills to pay just like everyone else. I had many conversations with them. This helped me gain a view of what goes on in the mind of police officers when they enter a potentially dangerous situation.

At a loss

One way officers are trained is they are put into simulations of situations they may encounter, including dealing with people with a mental health condition. In one simulation, they were told that in the room they were about to enter, the man inside was suspected of having a gun and being suicidal. On entering the room, the officers found the man lying on his side facing away from the door. They were told to go through the regular procedures they would carry out from their normal training. So the officers ordered the man to slowly put his hands where they could see them, and then to slowly roll over. The man did neither of these things. In fact, there was no response from him at all. Both officers were at a loss as to what to do.

In an actual situation of this type, the police officers would see the man on the floor as resisting arrest. They would consider him to be a real and present danger because they wouldn’t know if he had a gun, and if he did, where it was.

One of the officers involved in the above simulation questioned me afterwards. He stated that he was told the man on the floor was mentally compromised from schizophrenia. But still he wondered why he didn’t answer or at least in some way acknowledge the presence of the officers.

I told him of my friend’s son, and what she had told me about his inability to respond quickly when in an active psychosis. He sucked in his breath, and said he hadn’t had that information. He then said, “That changes everything.”

In conclusion

Information. Police officers and others in authority need information in order to safeguard those living with a mental health disorder. The police officers we see in the media harming persons with mental illness aren’t trying to be destructive or cruel. They just have no training in how to approach this unusual situation. Their training leaves them completely open to misunderstanding how they should respond to someone who doesn’t do as ordered.

We need crisis intervention training to become mandatory for all people who carry a badge. In this way, I believe, we can help them to make the correct judgement in these situations, without risking their lives or the lives of the mentally ill.

“A man can only attain knowledge with the help of those who possess it. This must be understood from the very beginning. One must learn from him who knows.”

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff


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