By Mary Kate McGrath - November 21, 2019
Despite initiatives aimed at developing more successful interactions between police officers and people suffering mental health issues, it has been estimated that people suffering mental health issues are sixteen times more likely to be killed by police officers due to first responders being unaware of their condition.
No other group has been tasked to manage and interact with people suffering mental health issues more than police officers. Yet - due to a lack of training, support and resources - people suffering mental health issues are statistically more likely to be arrested, incarcerated or killed by police officers than other populations.
Quantifying the extent of the problem is difficult due to the way in which mental health statistics are gathered and reported. These reports are often sensationalized or biased to meet an agenda. For example, in 2014, Newsweek reported “Nearly 1-in-5 Americans Suffers from Mental Illness Each Year” and this “statistic” is frequently repeated and misrepresented as if it related to serious mental health issues. The number of people struggling with a debilitating mental health crisis is different than this number, which documents a catch-all for every mental illness as they are broadly defined.
The lack of mental health funding in the United States puts the burden of response on law enforcement. The number of individuals struggling with mental illness or addiction continues to increase, as cuts to psychiatric treatment centers and other resources also rise. As a result, police are often the only available resource to those experiencing a mental health emergency. At the very least, they serve as the first line of response during serious mental health crises, and need to be given the appropriate information before entering these situations.
It is generally accepted that police response to mental illness could be improved, and some states are leading the way in addressing the issue. Below we highlight four examples of police and appropriate mental health response, and provide further information about how technology can improve police response to mental health emergencies.
In Colorado, a pilot program where behavioral health clinicians ride with police officers during 9-1-1 responses and routine patrols has been incredibly successful and is being expanded from three police department to twelve. $16 million of funding is being made available by the Colorado Department of Human Services to support the efforts of the police departments and sheriff's offices.
The evidence suggests this will be money well spent for mental health and police response. In 2017, behavioral health clinicians assisting police officers in Denver made contact with nearly one thousand people suffering mental health issues. Only 2.4% of encounters resulted in an arrest, while 334 people were connected to formal outpatient mental health treatment. Most other encounters resulted in a de-escalation of the incident.
The experience of the Denver Police Department was mirrored in Boulder County, where nearly 44% of encounters with people suffering mental health issues resulted in follow-up care rather than arrest and incarcerations. The pilot scheme in Boulder County is estimated to have cost $600,000, but saved the state more than $3 million in jail costs due to fewer arrests and incarcerations.
In 2008, Miami Dade County Jail received the unwelcome title of “largest psychiatric warehouse in the country” due to the volume of people suffering mental health issues being incarcerated. In response, the Mayor of Miami-Dade County created a Mental Health Task Force and introduced sweeping reforms to improve law enforcement response to mental illness.
As well as mandating CIT Training for 4,600 police officers, the county gave judges the authority to refer defendants suffering mental health issues for treatment, and provided the funding for additional mental healthcare professionals. The CIT training alone produced remarkable results, with every 5,000 CIT calls resulting in 10 to 20 arrests, compared to 400 to 500 arrests for every 5,000 regular police calls.
However, that is not the end of the story. Recidivism rates for defendants undergoing treatment in the misdemeanor program have fallen from 75% to 20%, while the recidivism rate for defendants in the felony program is 6% compared with the national average of 86%. As a result, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott recently approved a Bill proposing the Miami-Dade program is extended statewide.
In 2010, 45-year-old Doug Ostling - a man known to be suffering with psychosis - was shot and killed at his parent's home in Bainbridge Island by two experienced officers who alleged Ostling had been wielding an axe at them. The subsequent enquiry was inconclusive, but resulted in the passage of the Ostling Act in 2015 - mandating CIT training for all police officers in the state of Washington.
By the following year, 70% of police officers in Seattle's precincts were CIT-trained with an immediate return on investment. Out of 9,300 crisis response incidents, fewer than 8% resulted in an arrest. The program is being extended to ensure not only new recruits are provided with training before responding to mental health-related incidents, but also that refresher training is provided to veteran officers.
Two further initiatives have been implemented this year to support Crisis Intervention Teams. CIT personnel have been issued with an app that displays details of persons in crisis already known to police, and a Data Analytics Platform has been integrated into police servers to analyze past mental health-related incidents in order to better prepare officers for future incidents.
Possibly one of the most-comprehensive examples of police and mental health response is in Houston, Texas; where, since 1992, the police department has developed a Mental Health Division considered to be a national model for dealing with mental health-related incidents. In 2015 it was selected by the U.S. Council of State Governments as a “learning site for specialized police responses for the mentally ill.”
Houston's police department not only trains its police officers to recognize incidents involving people suffering mental health issues, but also its call dispatchers, jail personnel, and growing Homeless Outreach Team. All CIT-related calls are co-attended by one of the division's Crisis Response Team, who also conduct ongoing assessments of prisoners' mental health and refer for treatment when necessary.
In addition, the Mental Health Division supports Houston's Chronic Consumer Stabilization Initiative and works closely with state, VA and charitable organizations to advance mental healthcare in the community. According to the latest available statistics (2016), the Houston PD's Mental Health Division received and attended to 35,457 call for Crisis Intervention Team assistance.
Mental health is a complex social issue often neglected by law enforcement and other emergency service agencies. However, as we have demonstrated in the above examples, several state and local governments are implementing programs to better identify incidents in which people suffering mental health issues are involved and attend to them accordingly.
One of the most interesting developments in how police respond to mental health-related incidents is the growing use of technology. As seen in Seattle, apps displaying persons in crisis already known to the police are being distributed to CIT personnel. It's valuable to police and first responders to know any prior mental health history before responding to a call, and a safety profile can provide this information. This tool is something we will likely see more of as departments look for more cost-effective ways to promote mental health awareness.
This is also a subject we cover in our eBook “Preparing First Responders for Today’s Mental Health Crisis” - a useful source of information for any public official with a role to play in police mental health response. The eBook includes case studies in which technology has helped de-escalate mental health-related incidents and assisted incident management with enhanced situational awareness in potentially volatile situations.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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