To deal with mentally ill, cops act as 'social workers'

As police increasingly encounter the mentally ill across US, efforts are under way to instill a softer touch.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It didn't take much to change Lt. Steve Haynes's view of the mentally ill. He discovered that an old high-school classmate, who now lives on his street, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

"I found out that he graduated only one year ahead of me," Lieutenant Haynes says. "That's what really opened my eyes to seeing the mentally ill as real people. It's easy to become calloused in this work."

Now, if he faces a crisis involving the mentally ill, he says he'll be more sensitive to their needs. He's also coordinating a program designed to arm officers with a deeper compassion for the mentally ill, part of a statewide effort to instill a softer touch. Here - and nationwide - police are increasingly encountering the mentally ill.

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"These days, all of our officers have to be part-time psychiatrists," says Detective Tony Morales, a Phoenix Police Department spokesman. "Being a good talker and a good listener has become part of the job."

Yet in Phoenix - which has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the nation - the number of occasions in which officers used force against the mentally ill has tripled since 1998: 30 such instances were reported last year alone. Still, some in the law-enforcement community ques-tion whether a gentler approach will defuse all potentially violent confrontations, while others feel it's crucial that policemen don a second hat: that of a de facto social worker.

Phoenix's "Crisis Intervention Team" program, introduced in 2001, is designed to reduce the number of violent confrontations with the mentally ill. Officers demonstrating a high potential to work compassionately with the mentally ill are offered the training, which is not mandatory.

Roughly 100 officers have taken the 40-hour course, which features a roster of speakers including mental-health professionals, advocates, and patients. Officers learn "how to listen [and] how to slow down their language to allow the mentally ill person to process the words," says Sue Davis, a course assistant and director of the Arizona Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "They learn to ... not corner the person so that they become frightened and go into self-defense mode."

Haynes recalls a class in which a patient talked about a manic window-breaking episode that resulted in the police being called. The class offered "an extremely interesting dialogue between the man and our officers," Haynes says. "It provided a lot of insight."

The program started in Memphis in 1987, after a widely criticized police shooting of a mentally ill man. "There was a community outcry," says Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department. "Every day there were critical headlines in the paper, and the community was losing confidence in our department."

The program may keep some bullets from flying, but it's not a silver bullet. Despite the training, the number of violent altercations is rising. Ms. Davis blames the problem's intransigence on the "revolving door," with mentally ill people often arrested for petty crimes, and then released and arrested again. She says the situation builds frustration, simply raising the odds that an incident involving force will occur.

But officers find few alternatives to taking the mentally ill to jail - even though they're often released without treatment.

Nearly a continent away from Phoenix, Miami has started a program to stop the vicious cycle, arranging proper care for the mentally ill. The courts monitor a network of halfway houses that can accommodate the mentally ill within 48 hours of arrest.

Ms. Davis hopes a similar network will blossom in Phoenix, where she says most officers would rather take the mentally ill to a treatment facility than to jail.

And that, say Phoenicians and police, health, and legal experts, could avert more deadly confrontations. In 2001, for example, when parents of a suicidal 16-year-old called 911, the boy was shot by officers after he refused to drop a knife. Two months later, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia was killed after he moved toward officers with a knife.

Now, at least two bills requiring training are working their way through the Arizona Legislature. One, currently in the Senate, would establish mandatory training for recruits in the police academy. But, as the law awaits a hearing in the Rules Committee, it faces opposition from police unions and the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board.

"We are not opposed to improving how officers deal with ... the mentally ill," says Lyle Mann, manager of the training board. Instead, police advocates oppose mandates that deprive departments of flexibility in addressing the issue. "Police are called into a crisis situation that even family members ... are unable to control," he says. The board questions the efficacy of the training, Mr. Mann continues, and worries that "it raises expectations that officers are always able to get a situation under control" without using force.

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