Police and Mental Illness 

The recent acquittal of two Fullerton, California police officers charged in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed with mental illness, has re-ignited the ongoing debate over how police officers interact with people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness.  Voices are calling for enhanced and improved training for police officers in working with psychiatric illness, and indeed the need for this training has likely never been so great.

Since the emptying of the vast majority of American mental institutions in the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially here in California, more and more severely mentally ill people have been ending up homeless, filling up prisons, and finding themselves face to face with police officers.  In fact, law enforcement officers are frequently the first-responders for issues involving severe mental illness.  Despite this, mental illness-related training for law enforcement officers often amounts to just six to eight hours during academy, sometimes less.  Training varies widely between agencies, departments, and regions.

Fortunately the last few years have seen a growing recognition of the importance of expanding this training.  In the late 1980’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training was created to address this need.  CIT is a 40-hour course which teaches law enforcement officers about mental illness and trains them to interact with persons diagnosed with mental illness in ways that facilitate de-escalation.  CIT has been found to effectively improve law enforcement officers’ self-efficacy and attitude towards the mentally ill, as well as improving outcomes of calls involving mental illness, and reducing costs associated with mental illness, such as helping people get placed in appropriate health facilities instead of simply in jail.  Law enforcement departments around the country have begun implementing CIT for some of their officers, including Los Angeles county and many others within California.

While CIT is demonstrably effective, it does not represent a total solution.  CIT pulls officers off their job for a week, which many departments can ill afford, and even then only some officers will receive the training.  In Fullerton, where the Kelly Thomas incident occurred, the acting police chief has stated that all police officers receive “homelessness and mental illness training and crisis intervention training,” though he did not specify how many hours this included nor what this training actually involved.  Regardless, events such as Kelly Thomas’ death highlight the fact that the current methods of training appear to be inadequate.

Ignorance about psychological problems, and stereotypes that people with a mental illness are frequently violent, pervade both the general public and law enforcement.  While some people suffering from mental illness can certainly become violent, this can sometimes be a result of police actions which unintentionally escalate the situation.  Strategies as simple as lowering one’s voice, maintaining personal space, and taking a minute to assess the emotional state of a person may mean the difference between a peaceful resolution and tragedy. 

Along with the importance of expanding law enforcement training in working with psychiatrically-involved populations is the importance of shifting our attitudes as a culture and a society towards mental illness and those who struggle with it.  Whether homeless or not, many people suffering from psychological disturbances or disorders are indeed suffering.  This does not necessarily excuse any inappropriate or harmful actions they may take, but it should be sufficient cause to take an empathetic stance towards these people.  Empathy, or the ability to understand another person’s perspective, is an enormously important capacity to develop for everyone, but especially those in front-line professions that interact with diverse groups of people, such as law enforcement.  Empathy enhances compassion, facilitates communication, promotes mutual understanding, and can enable cooperation.

Without knowing all of the facts of the case it would be irresponsible to speculate about the motives or actions of any of the parties involved in the Kelly Thomas incident.  Regardless of the one’s opinion about the verdict, one possible take-away from this sad affair is that enhancing our level of empathy as a culture, and correspondingly the level of empathy law enforcement officers are trained to view mentally ill people with, the likelier that tragedies such as this could be avoided.

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