In 1988, the Memphis Police Department shot and killed a mental health patient amidst a crisis incident to which they had been called. This incident served as a catalyst for a total re-examination of police approaches to incidents involving mental illness. It is something I have been pushing for in the UK for 5yrs or so.
The principle is this: take a certain proportion of police officers and train them very well on mental health issues: recognition, de-escalation, stigmatization as well as law and enhanced knowledge of local MH and support services. Once trained, use these officers differently: send badged ‘CIT’ or ‘MHIT’ officers to calls involving MH crisis. Research suggests that officers trained will be less likely to use force, reducing injury; less likely to arrest because of enhanced communication skills; more likely to arrest for mental health reasons than for crime; more likely to ‘divert’ from justice than prosecute.
In some areas, they have gone further: Vancouver Police now use one such officer, paired with a psychiatric nurse to provide a partnership response to crisis. Why not?! Oregon Police are now going to send a social worker to 911 calls, where no threats of violence are involved; backed up by a police officer if there are such threats.
So why not do it here?
I’m convinced that the service will, eventually. It will take recognition at senior level, that mis-management of mental health issues represents a strategic threat to the service; affecting public confidence in policing and the service’s ability to keep people safe during crisis. The solution to many common policing issues involving mental health, is the knowledge and confidence of police supervisors to recognise when to intervene and when to resist calls to do so. This requires detailed legal knowledge and training and experience. We recognise these principles in the way we train custody sergeants. It will happen in mental health.
Ironically enough, this approach is nothing revolutionary: many issues within policing require the despatch of a specially trained or appropriately qualified officer. Rape and serious sexual offences are perhaps the best comparison: no sooner have the police despatched a ‘response’ officer to a report of rape, they will have notified a police supervisor and started the summoning of an ‘STO’ and / or a PPU detective. This is because the earliest stages of response to rape are key, not only to victim security and reassurance, but also to evidence preservation and investigative integrity amidst a host of complex variables.
Eventually, the service will realise – if it hasn’t already – that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is something Einstein commented upon.