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Mental Illness: A Tactical Understanding

NCJ Number
Campus Law Enforcement Journal Volume: 32 Issue: 5 Dated: September/October 2002 Pages: 34-39
Keith A. Gehrand
Date Published
September 2002
6 pages
This article discusses how police should respond to persons with mental illness.
Police officers must be able to quickly and accurately assess a situation where someone’s behavior often ranges from bizarre to extremely dangerous. Many States are experiencing budget deficits that require closing mental health centers. Without proper treatment and supervision the person with mental illness will not be able to assimilate into society and often will either commit criminal acts or become victimized. The police are often the first point of contact for complaints about people with mental illness because they are the only form of 24-hour emergency response available in many areas; they are the most visible government service available; and the police have the legal authority to detain, arrest, and use force when necessary. Police should never attempt to diagnose someone that is suspected of having a mental illness. There are common characteristics among persons with mental illness that would provide officers enough warning when encountering someone on the street. These include persons that compulsively talk, are conscious but not responsive to others around them or to commands, exhibit bizarre behavior, or are disturbing others. Three broad types of behavior that may suggest some form of mental illness are the degree of reaction to crowds, the appropriateness of their behavior for a given situation, and demonstration of extreme rigidity or inflexibility in new and unforeseen circumstances. Hallucinations are very common in persons with mental illness. Police officers responding to calls for service must always maintain a high level of alertness and always be vigilant for signs of impending danger of attack. Suicidal persons pose a severe threat to themselves and others. Once a situation is under control, the officer must decide upon a final disposition for the subject. The least often used disposition would be the most preferred one: hospitalization. Arrest is the chosen disposition in 16.5 percent of all cases. The most common disposition is informal disposition, which includes providing appropriate assistance to a victim or witness, referral to a mental health treatment center, or releasing to a family member. 6 references