In 1987, a Memphis, Tenn., police officer shot and killed a mentally ill man who was cutting himself and threatening others. The incident inspired training programs to help police handle these tricky situations. Those programs are catching on.
Confronting The Mentally Ill
It’s a situation no one wants to see: An armed police officer is called because someone is in the throes of a psychotic episode. “How the officer handles that situation can have a significant impact,” says Russell Laine, head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The IACP held a two-day meeting recently to discuss how officers should respond. On the first morning of the meeting, there was a silent period for attendees to write the names of officers or people with mental illness who had lost their lives in an encounter. There were about 75 people in the room, and about four dozen names went up on the board. National statistics, though, are hard to come by.
Police officer Darek Ardoin of the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office in Lake Charles, La., was at the conference. About three or four of the calls he’s sent out on each week involve people with mental illnesses. Ardoin says they’re disturbing the peace, scaring their families or threatening to hurt themselves.
He says he’s rarely felt directly threatened. But last year, a man called and asked for the police to come to his home. The man’s wife was in the bedroom, talking back to the television, and was quite agitated. The man himself wouldn’t get near the bedroom.
“I talked to her from the front door at first, and then I made it to the bedroom door,” Ardoin says. “I could see the knife was there, lying next to her on the bed.”
He followed his training, talked to her quietly and reassured her that he didn’t want to take her to jail. After about 20 minutes, the woman agreed to go to the hospital. “At that point, we had established a relationship,” he says.
The Use Of Deadly Force
Old-style policing calls for subduing the person, usually by force. That approach is upsetting to the person in the throes of a psychotic episode. It’s upsetting to the family, who are often the ones who called the police in the first place. And it’s upsetting to police officers, says Laine.
“Any time an officer has to use deadly force, it takes a significant toll,” he says.
Ardoin has trained three officers who came to training because they had shot and killed a mentally ill man. It was their way of dealing with their post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This is not a magical program, where 100 percent of the incidents will end up well,” Ardoin says. But he says it’s dramatically decreased officer injuries as well as injuries to people with psychoses, and the number of call outs to SWAT teams in Calcasieu Parish.
It’s not just an issue for police. It’s tough from the point of view of the person with psychosis and his or her family members. Sandra Spencer, executive director of the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, felt that firsthand when her son, who has bipolar disorder, was stopped by police officers when he was walking home from a friend’s house.
“He was manic, shaking,” she says. “He wasn’t coherent.” The police officers told him to be quiet and stay absolutely still. Instead, he reached into his pocket for his cell phone to call her.
“Guns were drawn,” says Spencer.
No shots were fired, but when the officers got her son home, says Spencer, she could see he was a wreck. “He had completely come apart,” she says.
Understanding Mental Illness
She began to talk to other families around the country, and heard a lot of stories about problems with police encounters. She talked to police officers, too, and realized there were lots of misunderstandings. So her organization put out a booklet for families, with advice like always telling the police dispatcher that mental illness is an issue, and not rushing out to greet the police, who might think they were being attacked.
The city of Memphis created a model program for training police officers after that shooting incident in 1987. It was started by Samuel Cochran, who now says officers tend to reflect the views of society.
“When I, in my career in law enforcement, came across a person with mental illness, the reaction I had was, this is just another crazy person that I’ve got to deal with. I was learning that from the community.” Cochran says.
But when the Memphis police chief told him to deal with the public reaction to the shooting, Cochran started talking to mental health experts and families. And he realized that most situations could be defused if police officers were trained to approach mentally ill people differently from common criminals — slowly, calmly and recognizing that the person may not be seeing the situation clearly.
According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, there are now about 200 or 300 police departments around the country with active training programs. The center’s position is that what’s really needed are community services where people with mental illness can get treatment and support, so that crises can be avoided in the first place.
That’s in line with Russell Laine, the head of the police chiefs’ organization. He says one of the challenges facing trained police officers is that there’s often nowhere to take people in need of immediate help other than the county jail.