Police and Crisis Intervention – A Crisis in Itself

TASA ID: 321

Police officers today deal with many issues. They face danger every day and it is compounded with the current social issues in our society, including the animosity towards police officers and the calls for defunding the police. In this social climate, they have to be more aware than ever of how they respond to situations that may call for utilizing force. It gets even trickier when the officer(s) has to respond to a situation involving individuals that may reasonably be in crisis. These situations necessitate an officer to make immediate and difficult judgments about the mental state and intent of the individual. Since the goal is to effectively resolve the situation with as little violence as possible, officers are often called upon to use special skills, techniques and abilities beyond the “use of force” training they normally receive in order to effectively resolve the situation. They must de-escalate the situation safely for all individuals involved within defined safety priorities, using the laws of the jurisdiction to guide them.

The goal of law enforcement is to always diffuse a difficult situation using as little force as possible. They are trained in the “Use-of-Force Continuum” which outlines appropriate levels of force for different situations. However, most law enforcement officers traditionally are not trained to determine a person’s mental health by assessing their behavior. That is starting to change.

Since every situation is different and every community is different, resources to train law enforcement officers vary widely. Lexipol recently conducted a nationwide survey entitled LAW ENFORCEMENT RESPONSE TO PEOPLE IN CRISIS - UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES OF INCIDENTS involving persons with mental illness which provided some interesting data. For example, when asked of law enforcement personnel “what percentage of your contacts would you estimate involve people who are mentally ill or experiencing a mental health crisis? And how often do these incidents occur? Sixty percent of officers responded saying mentally ill individuals make up 11% or more of their contacts and 99% of respondents have had an interaction (or supervise an officer who has) with an individual who is mentally ill or was experiencing a mental health crisis.

The breakdown from this survey stated that the top calls involved the following:

  • 39% welfare checks
  • 72% suicide threat/attempts
  • 10% assaults
  •  25% to assist fire/ems
  •  55% nuisance behavior or disorderly conduct
  • 10% low-level misdemeanor
  •  23% suspicious person
  • 9% missing or endangered person
  • 23% domestic disturbance
  • 5% other
  • 3% vice (drugs or prostitution)

Responses from law enforcement include encouraging the individual to be transported to a mental health facility, de-escalation techniques, and calls for specialized resources; counseling and releasing the individual or family/friend and pursuing a civil commitment order.

While there currently is a call for de-funding of police departments, it is not safe to assume a social worker will be out of harm’s way to respond to an incident without law enforcement present. The very real threat of violence means a trained law enforcement officer should always respond to these calls. Even in calls that may appear non-threatening, there is always the chance of violence.

There are many ideas for resolving this problem. A major one includes specialized training and comprehensive policies to help law enforcement successfully navigate these situations.  Officers need to know how to carry out effective, non-violent encounters in the real world. This is especially true when officers are dealing with mentally ill persons.  While they understand the “Use-of-Force Continuum,” officers also need to be trained to determine whether a person actually may be endangering themselves or others.  The Lexipol survey stated that 60% of officers say the ability to get specialized resources on the scene more quickly would help them feel better equipped to deal with calls involving people in crisis, and 16% say more or better training is key. While this training may not eliminate the need to use force, it may help to minimize the need for it.

Another idea from the Lexipol survey is to reduce the time officers need to devote to the calls involving people in crisis. There is often a long wait for specialized resources to arrive including social workers, mental health officers or other specialized skilled persons.

Therefore, it is important to train officers to understand the differences and the nuances of mental health issues of persons who may be in crisis:

  • A mental Health Crisis is an event or experience in which an individual’s normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed, causing them to have an extreme emotional, physical, mental, and/or behavioral response. Symptoms may include emotional reactions such as fear, anger or excessive giddiness; psychological impairments such as inability to focus, confusion or nightmares, and potentially even psychosis; physical reactions like vomiting/stomach issues, headaches, dizziness, excessive tiredness, or insomnia; and/or behavioral reactions including the trigger of a “freeze, fight or flight” response. Any individual can experience a crisis reaction regardless of previous history of mental illness.
  • Mental Illness is different in that it is an impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional or behavioral functioning caused by physiological or psychosocial factors. A person may be affected by mental illness if they display an inability to think rationally (e.g., delusions or hallucinations); exercise adequate control over behavior or impulses (e.g., aggressive, suicidal, homicidal, sexual); and/or take reasonable care of their welfare with regard to basic provisions for clothing, food, shelter, or safety.

While only a trained mental health professional can diagnose mental illness, law enforcement officers are increasingly being called upon to render that judgement, often in a split second under the most stressful and potentially dangerous conditions. It is important that they are trained to recognize behaviors that are possibly indicative of persons in crisis, as well as behaviors that might suggest potential violence and/or danger. They need to be capable of assessing the situation for drugs, alcohol, or other substances that may cause situational, temporary, emotional disturbances, and be able to recognize some medical conditions. An officer must immediately assess the risk of dangerous behavior to the person in crisis, to the officer, or to others at the scene. This includes assessing the situation for any weapons that are present; any threats of harm to the person in crisis or to others; any prior threats or known risks of violence; how much self-control the person exhibits over their emotions including rage, anger, fright, etc.; any indication of substance abuse; the environment in which the situation is taking place; and whether there is risk of sudden behavioral changes. Officers must be trained to recognize important clues including fear, frustration, signs of dementia, or other cognitive impairment, delusions or false beliefs, hallucinations, feeling of confusion or paranoia, feeling of invincibility, and signs of depression.

Once an officer determines that they are dealing with an individual who may be experiencing a mental health crisis and is a potential threat to themselves, the officer, or others, intervention may be required, as prescribed by legal statute. This generally includes taking immediate measures to resolve any conflict safely and to calmly control the situation. These measures may include, but are not limited to, dispersing crowds and eliminating lights and sirens. They should create distance if possible, in order to take cover or to create barriers. They should try to communicate with the individual and create a rapport, taking care to always be truthful. They can also request backup, request assistance from a special crisis intervention team, mental health persons, psychologists, or other mental health resources.

Unfortunately, law enforcement will always have dangerous situations to deal with but with more specialized training and with more resources to assist them, hopefully the public will begin to again respect what the police are doing to keep them safe.  

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA Id #321). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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