Law Enforcement Interactions with Individuals with Mental Illness: Officer Safety Considerations

It is estimated that approximately 9.6 million adults in the United States are affected by a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Confronting a mentally ill individual can be a complicated issue for officers, and they should be adequately trained to respond to these situations in the safest way possible for all parties.

In 2010, the IACP released Building Safer Communities: Improving Police Responses to Persons with Mental Illness, a national symposium report which notes that many interactions with mentally ill individuals end badly due to lack of consistent agency policies, procedures, education, and training. The report highlights the recurring problem of officer interactions with mentally ill individuals and provides recommendations to law enforcement agencies to address the problem.

Cases involving a mentally ill individual must be handled in a particular way in order to avoid serious conflict and potential injury to the individual or officer. The goal of these interactions is to de-escalate the situation while maintaining the safety of all who are involved.

While many agencies have Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) in place to handle such situations, these personnel will not always be available. According to the report, there are a number of proactive steps agencies can take to ensure that officers are prepared to safely approach and interact with an individual with mental illness:

  • Create crisis response resources that pertain to responding to calls that involve a known individual with mental illness.
  • Review training curricula to prepare officers to respond to and communicate effectively with an individual with a serious mental illness.
  • Develop polices directing officers to avoid restraint techniques or deadly force unless these are the only means to ensure the safety of those involved.
  • Ensure that emergency service dispatchers receive specialized training to familiarize themselves with guidelines regarding the appropriate crisis resources for calls involving a mental health crisis.
  • Convene periodic debriefings for all responders to calls involving individuals with mental illness to identify successful approaches and learn from any issues or oversights.

All law enforcement officers should be aware of the available options that are appropriate for handling an encounter with a mentally ill individual. Each confrontation is different, so it is important for an officer to knowledgeable in dealing with a range of situations and individuals.

The IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness strives to improve awareness on all aspects of officer safety. It is the IACP’s position that no injury to or death of a law enforcement professional is acceptable. To learn more and to share best practices pertaining to officer safety and wellness please visit http://www.iacp.org/CenterforOfficerSafetyandWellness or contact the Center staff at officersafety@theiacp.org.

 

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