Earlier this year, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell spoke to the 21st Century Policing Task Force in Washington, D.C. He detailed that throughout 2013 alone, almost 40 percent of all police-related incidents that warranted the use of force also “involved individuals suffering from mental illness and in too many cases we arrest our way out of these encounters rather than diverting individuals to the community treatment and care they need.”
Combined with the recent and tragic death of a man from LA’s Skid Row at the hands of police officers, McDonnell’s statement highlights the overlying tension regarding current law enforcement procedures and attitudes. In order to clear this turbulent climate, the ways that officers protect and serve the people must adapt to the challenge of mental health, similar to what the pharmaceutical industry and health care providers have begun to do over the last few decades.
The exploration of mental health education and training for police officers has been a long-lasting ideological movement within the field. In a 1997 training guide of community policing approaches from the Police Executive Research Forum, informative activities and modules range from discussing attitudes to recognizing characteristics of mental illnesses. However, a subsequent 2006 report from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing laid out the drastic details of police behavior in the U.S. Important findings include:
- Approximately 7 percent of police interactions with jurisdictions of 100,000 or more individuals involve the mentally ill.
- The police department of Lincoln, Nebraska handled over 1,500 mental health investigations in 2002 and it spent more time on these cases than traffic collisions, burglaries or felony assaults.
- According to the New York City Police Department, the force responds to about 150,000 “emotionally disturbed persons” phone calls each year.
- Overall, 10 to 15 percent of jailed people in the United States have a severe mental illness of some kind.
Combining mental health and the police force
One of the most prominent examples of this new strategy comes from the Los Angeles Police Department. Known as the Mental Evaluation Unit, the special subdivision of the LAPD consists of teams of two: one police officer and one mental health clinician. Aimed at reducing the conflictive incidents between law enforcement and citizens with mental issues or in a personal crisis, this experimental method of intervention has become nationally praised for its significant results and implications for future implementation.
Fortunately, the specialized law enforcement program and its ideology are spreading. With help from the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center, the LAPD was officially appointed as one of six training sites across the country that provide specialized mental health policing. As an accepted pioneer of this progressive program, the unit has shared its teachings with almost 60 other agencies throughout the U.S. and international agencies in five different countries.
In addition to these developments, similar Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs are gaining influential traction as well. For instance, the CIT International Conference celebrates 28 years of resiliency and recovery through its partnership with multiple nonprofit organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Together, these collaborative affiliations help start local initiatives that are intended to improve how law enforcers and the community members effectively address people experiencing mental health crises.
Sovereign Health of California offers high quality and comprehensive addiction, dual diagnosis and mental health treatment programs for adults and adolescents, including support services for family members as well. Sovereign Health’s treatment programs specialize in addressing underlying mental health conditions by utilizing innovative and cutting edge cognitive testing, rehabilitation and evidence-based treatment modalities. If you, a family member or friend is in need of mental health or addiction care, contact a Sovereign representative online or call (866) 819-0427.
Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer