What is the Role of the Police When Dealing with the Mentally Ill?

One of the most challenging aspects of our job in recent years is what to do with the mentally ill.  Police are in frequent contact with people who are mentally ill.  Sometimes we encounter them in the street when their behavior becomes problematic (like walking in traffic) or when families call us to deal with a family member that they can no longer manage.   Some estimates place the number of mentally ill persons in the US at about 5% of the total population and 10-15% of the jailed population have severe mental illness.  A disturbing number of the mass shooting incidents in this country have links back to mental illness -Aurora, CO; Newtown, MA, even a new Boston Globe report on the Boston bombing case reports that the older Tsnarev brother said he feared voices in his head.

Mental health in and of itself is not a police problem.  It is a medical and social services problem.  Unfortunately, because of the problems associated with people with mental illness, the police are called to respond to incidents that are difficult and challenging and in some cases dangerous.  Those problems include public disorder, suicide and suicide attempts, threats, imagined threats.  Officers will tell you that suicidal threats are the most problematic.

Here in Auburn Hills we do not individually track our contacts with the mentally ill.  But I know that we are frequently called to deal with individuals who show signs of mental illness.  Our resources are limited and many of the individuals are repeat callers.  One of our sergeants told me a story of his frustration in dealing with a veteran who needed certain medications to maintain his mental health.  He had difficulty in getting through to the VA facility out of state–even the sergeant got on the phone to urge them to get him his needed prescription soon so that he could control the behaviors that caused a police response.

Training for police in this area is very limited but we do our best to find proper training for our officers.  We also remind ourselves when we contact a mentally ill individual in distress that we are on a rescue mission –not a law enforcement mission.  Our job is to get them to the help they need.  Very often when they are unwilling to go.   Without a court order, Michigan law only permits the detention of individuals when it can be established that they present a danger to themselves or others. And then only for a short period of time while they can be examined.   Taking an unwilling person requires us to restrain them–which can cause injuries to either the officers or the individuals.

We do work with Community Mental Health and their partners to provide services for individuals.  We also participate in Oakland County’s Diversion Program.  This program allows  for non prosecution of mentally ill folks who are involved in low level disorder type crimes that normally would create a scenario for arrest because the officer doesn’t have other tools to solve the problem.  The individual is not charged with a crime but instead referred to mental health authorities who require them to participate in treatment in exchange for staying out of jail.  Governor Snyder has requested that all of the community stakeholders including police, sheriffs, corrections, courts and community mental health boards work together to find solutions.

I’ve signed on as a participant although I don’t know what the solutions are.  I only know the questions.