Fault Lines
19 October 2017

The Collision Course: Cops And The Mentally Ill

Jan. 5, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — A police officer’s job is a dangerous one. Other than that of a soldier’s, no other job description in the world holds the expectation that the employee face the potential of death whenever they clock in on the job.

Unlike the job of the soldier, however, almost every time a police officer takes a life in the course of his or her job, he immediately faces intense scrutiny and criticism for that decision.  Sometimes that scrutiny and criticism is deserved.  Other times it is not.  Contrary to the belief of some, no police officer has the duty to die in the course of his or her job, if they have the opportunity to prevent it from happening.

Most articles on the topic of police shootings of people suffering from mental illness place the blame on a lack of training by the police. These types of articles are usually written from the perspective of a Monday Morning Quarterback who fails to take into account the volatility of a mentally ill individual and the speed in which these types of situations can escalate.

Over the holiday season, The National Review focused several short articles on recent police shootings of mentally ill individuals across the country.  Rather than focusing on the idea that police officers mishandle encounters with the mentally ill, editor Rich Lowry stresses the point that the blame falls more on the mental health industry.  Lowry uses the December 26, 2015 shooting deaths of Quintonio LeGrier and neighbor Bettie Jones by the Chicago Police Department as an example of police being called out to deal with mental health issues that should have been addressed much earlier and by more qualified personnel.

These shootings are another tragic symptom of our contemptible outsourcing of the severely mentally ill to law enforcement. The police are our de facto front-line mental-health workers – “armed social workers” in the pungent phrase of one observer – and jails are our de facto psychiatric-hospital system.

An earlier article by D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy.Org, notes:

In the United States there are fewer than 100,000 seriously mentally ill people in psychiatric hospitals being cared for by the mental-health system.  But there are 365,000 seriously mentally ill people incarcerated, along with 770,000 on probation or parole and 165,000 homeless.

Although Jaffe places the blame on the ambiguously defined “mental-health industry,” he makes valid attacks on overarching policies “that include closing psychiatric hospitals, making civil commitment more difficult, and focusing public mental-health resources on sideshows like bullying and stigma, rather than serious mental illness.”

Regarding the issue of “closing psychiatric hospitals,” it is difficult to place the entirety of the blame on the shadowy “mental-health industry.” At least in theory, the law frowns upon the idea of incarcerating or otherwise limiting the freedom of those who have yet to commit a crime.  While some portion of the population might feel comfortable with the idea of locking up the mentally ill prior to them harming themselves or others, the criminal justice system just doesn’t work like that.  It is a reactive system that only incarcerates after the act has been committed, no matter how dangerous an individual may appear to be.

Likewise, although it is easy to sympathize with the criticism that the mental health industry is “making civil commitment more difficult,” most rational minds understand that those difficulties are necessary to prevent abuses. Mental illness ranges from the truly psychotic and dangerous to the mild and relatively harmless.  If it were easy to civilly commit a person based on mental illness alone, a great many of us may find our liberty in danger.

While lockdown mental hospitals and civil commitment may neither be effective nor available tools in alleviating the danger from a violently mentally ill person, Jaffe does cover an interesting alternative in the form of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). AOT serves as a type of “Civil Commitment Lite” and is provided for in 45 states.

Assisted Outpatient Treatment is court-mandated monitored treatment for a small group of the most seriously mentally ill who have already accumulated multiple incidents of arrest or violence. The six-month court order requires them to stay in treatment while they continue to live free in the community. It has reduced incarceration, arrest, and hospitalization by figures in the 70 percent range.

Jaffe’s article notes that U.S. Representatives Tim Murphy and Eddie Bernice Johnson have sponsored the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646), “which takes steps to increase the number of hospital beds and promote wider use of AOT.”

Although the idea of AOT certainly provides a ray of hope, a few logistical problems spring to mind when examining the effectiveness of Assisted Outpatient Treatment. The requirement of having “already accumulated multiple incidents of arrest or violence” is reactive rather than proactive.  However, it is a far better alternative than relying on a severely mentally ill individual to police him or herself.  It is also a more hopeful alternative to locking a person away in a mental health hospital for an undetermined amount of time. Unfortunately, a six-month period of supervision is only truly effective for those six months.

The sad reality is that the issue of the violent mentally ill is a Catch-22 that may never be effectively resolved to the satisfaction of anyone. Those individuals are normally not capable of consistently caring for themselves.   Stripping away their freedom via civil commitment or lockdown mental hospitals flies in the face of principles that our criminal justice system rightfully holds dear.  Even well-intentioned and well-thought out plans like AOT are just temporary solutions.

Jaffe’s criticisms of the mental health care industry are valid and his call for change is certainly a worthy one. It is just so very difficult to come up with an effective, long-term solution.  Police officers can receive hours and hours of training on how to effectively confront the mentally ill, but nothing would be more effective than avoiding the confrontation in first place.  At the end of the day, the collision course between these individuals and the police may just be inevitable.

When that collision happens, an officer’s training to survive will supersede that mental health training every time.

6 Comments on this post.

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  • jdgalt
    5 January 2016 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    I tripped over that first paragraph. Cab drivers die on the job at twice the rate of police officers; that doesn’t mean we give them a license to shoot first and ask questions later. I fail to see why the same can’t go for cops.

  • “Therapists” With Guns (And Responsibility)
    6 January 2016 at 10:22 am - Reply

    […] 6, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — In a fascinating post, Murray Newman offers a perspective on the inadequacy of police to handle confrontations with the mentally ill without leaving someone […]

  • Clark Crimcops
    9 January 2016 at 7:27 am - Reply

    “Other than that of a soldier’s, no other job description in the world holds the expectation that the employee face the potential of death whenever they clock in on the job.”

    As long as you ignore the on the job fatality rate of fishermen, loggers, steal workers, landscapers, garbage collectors. roofers, 7-11 employees and about a half-dozen other professions, that’s absolutely true.
    Why does every attempt the justify the more than 1200 deaths last year at the hands of police does so on the backs of these types of lies?

    • shg
      9 January 2016 at 8:18 am - Reply

      You’re conflating two separate concepts, the de facto risk of death on a job (say, logger) with the known and purposeful risk of death on the job for a cop. We all know that cops don’t make the top 10 most dangerous jobs (as if this hasn’t been said about a gazillion times), but that’s not what Murray is saying. They go to work knowing that their job entails an external risk of harm as part of the deal.

      • Clark Crimcops
        9 January 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

        “They go to work knowing that their job entails an external risk of harm as part of the deal.”

        Do you think that when fishermen head out onto the frigid waters of the Baltic sea, or the logger is 100 feet in the air chopping off the top of a tree they are oblivious to the fact their job entails an external risk of harm? Trust me, people with dangerous jobs know their jobs are dangerous.

        The fact that police officers clock in every day with the vastly unrealistic notion that they are about to hit the streets, cheating death at every turn is why we see cops kill hundreds of unarmed people every year.
        What possible outcome could you expect once you fill a person’s head with the fallacy of imminent danger, arm them, send them out into the streets with the promise they will not be held accountable for their actions?

        The fact that law enforcement has been unable to do what emergency room nurses, intake specialists, doctors and social workers accomplish every day (interact with the mentally ill without resorting to deadly force) is not a failure on the mental health system, it’s a failing of the fear-based culture of law enforcement.

  • Robert Rialmo’s Gambit: Chutzpah or Desperation?
    9 February 2016 at 8:48 am - Reply

    […] called to the home of LeGrier on a disturbance call and ultimately ended up shooting and killing LeGrier, as well as neighbor (and innocent bystander) Bettie Jones.  Antonio LeGrier, Quintonio’s father, filed a wrongful death suit against Rialmo and the […]