At the 2022 PARMA Conference, a session discussed the evolving ways that police departments are responding to situations involving mentally ill suspects. Speakers included:
- Kevin Allen – Allen, Glaessner, Hazerwood & Werth
- John Robinson – Allen, Glaessner, Hazerwood & Werth
- Thomas Sims – Watsonville Police Department
About 10% of police interactions involve someone with mental illness and 25% of officer-involved shootings involve a suspect with mental illness. These interactions are riskier because typically the calls last longer, require more than one officer, do not involve a felony, and are volatile situations involving risk to the safety all parties.
According to surveys, 80% of people believe first responders and mental health professionals should both be involved in these situations, rather than police alone. 44% of police said they would prefer that a mental health professional respond to these events.
The costs of law enforcement liability claims keep climbing. One public entity liability pool noted their police liability claims are 50% of their claims and 75% of paid losses. Defense verdicts are rare in some areas regardless of the facts involved. Body cameras are helpful because they capture the perspective of the officers and the audio of the confrontation. Witness videos miss these factors and can provide a distorted view of what actually happened.
There are several court cases that have defined the standards of reasonable force used in such situations, and they distinguish between mental health cases and violent criminals who have just completed felonies. The courts ruled that the same level of force justified to subdue violent criminals is not appropriate with mentally ill suspects, unless the suspect is armed and posed a threat to officers. This also applies to non-lethal force, such as tasers or bean bag guns.
Current Officer Training
Officers receive crisis intervention and de-escalation training in police academy and as part of their continuing education on the job. These programs emphasize communication with the suspect and trying to de-escalate the situation before using force, with a mix of classroom and role-playing scenarios.
Some law enforcement agencies have set up special response teams that include mental health professionals. However, staffing has posed a challenge, since law enforcement receives calls 24/7, and mental health professionals tend to work 9-5 on weekdays. Mental health counselors are always accompanied by police, as they may feel unsafe without a police presence. This means a police response is not eliminate, but instead supplemented.
Thanks to funding from the COVID-19 relief (CARES) bill, some law enforcement agencies are piloting programs where only mental health professionals respond to situations. There is a risk involved with these programs though, as they may turn violent and a counselor could face harm. Data trends will need to be utilized before the potential benefits of these programs outweigh those risks.