Cycle of Imprisonment for Mentally Ill

"Every day, police officers encounter individuals and situations in which untreated mental illness has resulted in behaviors that generate a citizen complaint or disorderly behavior," said Robert K. Olson, president of Police Executive Research Forum and chief of the Minneapolis Police Department.

"My officers know we can better serve individuals with mental illnesses without risking public safety." he said. "This report shows police how to work with all stakeholders using models and principles they can tailor to their own community — approaches that will minimize the costs in human lives, dignity and police resources."

Avoiding Deadly Decisions

Olson said he became involved in the Consensus Project because in the course of his 37-year career, he found that hundreds of people with mental illnesses were killed by police who he said were not trained to handle special situations properly. To save lives, Olson said, his department developed methods to better prepare his officers for encounters with disturbed people.

In Minneapolis, Olson said, some police are specially trained to assess situations involving people suspected of suffering from mental illness. Olson said his officers are also being trained to use less-than-lethal methods when dealing with the mentally ill, such as stun guns. Olson and the Consensus Project also recommend the use of mobile crisis intervention teams to assess and defuse explosive situations, and police protocols for handling people with mental illness.

"Before [the reforms], we were not trained normally to deal with people with mental illness," Olson said. "We're not psychiatrists; we're cops. … There were a lot of people — hundreds — with some kind of mental illness we later learned about who were getting killed or wounded needlessly. And I thought that there must be a better way for us to serve the community and not make deadly decisions with the mentally ill. My hope is that other state and local governments could perhaps adapt our model, what we're doing here and conform it to fit the particular needs of their community."

Olson also favors — and the Consensus Project recommends — a database that documents incidents between the mentally ill and police to keep law enforcement officials accountable, track repeat offenders and to help prevent mentally ill people from returning to prison.

Hopeful for New Legislation and Collaboration

Lane realizes he was lucky that police did not grant his suicide wish. Many people who suffer from mental illness are undiagnosed, refuse treatment or don't have relatives to look after them or are unable to help them. And often, as in Lane's case, they are refused medical treatment or mishandled by officials. That makes them more likely to have repeated encounters with police.

"Mentally ill people are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement," Lane said. "They attract attention when they act out and they're more likely to return to prison because they and police don't know they have an illness or they refuse treatment. When they're released, they're still undiagnosed and poor and more likely to return to prison. We've got to have more innovative solutions and better collaborations between law enforcement and mental health experts after the mentally ill are discharged. I just hope the report is a tool, an instrument of change."

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