No Consensus on Mental Health and Policing

Yesterday, I wrote about the death of Anthony Hill, a man with bipolar disorder, who, while naked and unarmed, was killed by police in the Atlanta area. Here are three stories on how police should respond to these sorts of situations (I’m guessing there are 500+ related deaths a year nationally, but numbers are hard to locate).

New Jersey – Crisis Intervention Training Pays Off.

Police officers in 11 New Jersey counties have received crisis-intervention training to interact more effectively with people who have mental illnesses, and research shows that the program is changing cops’ attitudes.
During the weeklong, 40-hour training, officers learn about symptoms, meet with people who have a mental illness, and study techniques to de-escalate difficult situations.
“Trainers educate the officer that a person’s behavior is often out of their control,” explained Mary Lynne Reynolds, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey. “For example, if someone is in a state of mania, they cannot stand still. So if a police officer says, ‘stand still,’ the individual can’t do that.”

I like that last line a lot, as it directly works against the cult of compliance. But there are other models, instead of training each officer to handle these situations. In Baltimore, the idea is to create special mental health cops.

State Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (District 44) and Del. Charles Sydnor (District 44B) have sponsored legislation that would create separate mental health units for the Baltimore City police department and establish an evaluation system for the unit that already exists in Baltimore County.
The legislation would establish a pilot program requiring both police departments to have units made up of officers trained to understand the needs of those with mental illness.

Meanwhile, in Montreal – training seems of limited use.

Paulin Bureau, director of training at École nationale de police du Québec, detailed how many hours of training are dedicated to dealing with people who suffer from mental health issues and with the homeless.
He said the college offers continuing training to police forces across the province.
But Bureau stressed training isn’t an easy fix for police dealing with people who have mental health issues.
Bureau told the inquest cadets might not have to put that training into use in the field for a few years, and by then it would be difficult to recall what they had learned about dealing with someone in crisis.

After 15 weeks of training at the provincial police college, officers don’t come out as mental health specialists with the ability to diagnose someone in a short time period, Bureau said.
He said a police officer could get additional training for dealing with mental health issues one year and might not have to use that training for months or even years.

I’m more a fan of the Baltimore model (which is itself the San Antonio model), but even that I think has limited impact. There are medical issues related to mental health and cops need to know them and/or have instant and reliable access to experts. But that’s secondary to changing attitudes and approaches to potentially violent encounters.

For me, I’ve been persuaded that the focus should be on strategic thinking generally, not mental-health specific training. Much more on this to come over the months ahead.

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