By Tara Gibson - September 23, 2020
It’s no question; 2020 has been an extremely difficult year. As the country grapples with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, countrywide civil unrest, and devastating natural disasters, law enforcement agencies have begun to refocus priorities and resources to connect those in need of help with essential mental health services.
Unfortunately, the Treatment Advocacy Center conducted a study finding people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by a law enforcement officer. The study also found that at least 1 in 4 and as many as half of all fatal police shootings involve individuals with untreated severe mental illness. These numbers are heartbreaking.
So, why is this happening?
Try to picture being a police officer arriving on the scene of an emergency with little to no information to find somebody who refuses to answer commands and is acting erratically. What the officer doesn’t know is this individual is struggling with a severe mental illness. Unexpected behaviors presented to law enforcement can often be interpreted as threatening behaviors, especially during a high-stress situation.
The individual could be having a schizophrenic episode, suicidal thoughts, or could suffer from developmental or mental disabilities hindering their ability to understand the commands coming from the police officer, and their confusion is then interpreted as non-compliance. For a police officer, oftentimes the fear for their life causes a senseless tragedy which could have been avoided.
Countless incidents have resulted in the death of an innocent person, which rightfully sparks outrage, anger, sadness, and a range of emotions due to what can be considered to be a tragic misunderstanding.
Many law enforcement agencies are trying to take positive and proactive steps to address how police officers respond to calls for people suffering from mental illnesses or disabilities.
Some have joined the IACP’s One Mind Campaign to implement important practices to ensure successful interactions between police officers and those suffering from mental illness. On their website, they explain, “The initiative focuses on uniting local communities, public safety organizations, and mental health organizations so that the three become ‘of one mind’.”
To join the campaign, law enforcement agencies must pledge to implement the following 4 practices over a 12-36 month time frame:
Almost 500 agencies across the United States have taken this pledge. For more information click here.
Several law enforcement agencies have gone as far as to hire new personnel specifically for mental health-related calls. In Denver, they created a new Support Team Assistance Response program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic to some 9-1-1 calls instead of police, according to the Denver Post. The Support Team Assistance Response program, or STAR, has responded to more than 350 calls since June of this year, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety.
“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said. “We want to meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system.”
In Flathead County, Montana, the first co-responder has arrived to help reshape how law enforcement approaches citizens during a crisis and connect individuals with much needed mental health services in the community. Flathead Beacon explains that after over a year - and with the full support of local law enforcement - Sarah Winfrey, a trained social worker, and experienced crisis therapist, was hired.
Winfrey describes her scope of calls as those involving “human emotion”, which covers a large spectrum of calls from a suicidal person or somebody behaving erratically to domestic violence and death notifications. Although some of these scenarios can be extremely stressful, she shares that sometimes it may be as simple as explaining immediately to an individual that she is not a police officer. Afterward, she is able to explain that she’s a licensed therapist and counselor and that she’s there to help.
A breakdown in communication happens all too often during mental health-related 9-1-1 calls. One technology that many law enforcement agencies have leveraged is public safety profiles, such as Smart911.
A public safety profile encourages residents and communities to build out their profile to contain key facts including household and family information – such as a child with a mental illness, location and address information, critical medical concerns – such as diabetes, a heart condition, and more, as well as additional information and notes somebody would want first responders to know.
Once a public safety profile is created it only becomes available to 9-1-1 and first responders during an emergency in which that individual calls 9-1-1. With this critical information, dispatchers can choose to send a social worker along with law enforcement if the profile were to note a mental health concern, for example. The notes provided give first responders a full picture before arriving on the scene, which allows them to determine the best approach to keep everybody safe.
As everybody struggles to come to terms with the curveballs we’ve been thrown this year, mental health is as important as ever. For law enforcement agencies who want to make changes, reprioritize, and learn more on how to intervene during a mental health crisis, any and all of the suggestions above will help.
Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!
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