Borderline personality disorder — a primer for police officers: Part two
By Peter Collins and Matthew Tomlin
By Peter Collins and Matthew Tomlin
In the May 2020 Behavioural Sciences column, we discussed the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and the challenge these individuals may pose to both law enforcement and clinicians alike.
Interacting with BPD in crisis negotiations
According to Borum and Strentz,1 police interactions with BPD individuals are when they are in crisis, sometimes as a result of a barricade or domestic hostage situation. Developing a rapport with an individual who experiences extreme reactions within potentially all types of relationships; intense anger; extreme emotional lability; and impulsiveness, will be challenging. BPD individuals fear rejection and may even encourage the officer to reject them to confirm their belief.
As with any form of crisis intervention, active listening is paramount. The needs of the BPD will be expressive rather than material or instrumental. Allow them to ventilate, to a point, but be aware they will transfer their dependency and hostility unto you. Allowing them free reign to ventilate may actually make them feel more vulnerable so redirecting the conversation is required. Expect them to start rejecting you if a healthy and productive rapport is beginning to develop.2
If and when you decide to switch negotiators, they may interpret this as rejection and prove how they perceive themselves. They may also “split” the negotiators by over-idealizing the primary negotiator and demonizing his or her replacement. Suicide and self-harm by cutting remains a real risk during crisis negotiations and should be continually monitored.
Individuals with BPD may evoke negative feelings with the negotiator. It is important to have the secondary negotiator and/or mental health consultant on scene to provide objective feedback about the stress level and emotional state of the negotiation team.1
Interacting with BPD in-person in crisis calls for service
Patrol officers responding to calls involving persons in crisis will likely make contact with a person with BPD, with most interactions stemming from domestic-related contexts involving disturbances or suicidality. Police mobile crisis teams are well-suited for such responses, and connections to appropriate community resources are invaluable.
Officers that recognize features of BPD can mitigate against unfavourable outcomes. Successful engagement begins by taking a different approach — by employing active listening, validating their emotions, and engendering enough trust to encourage a productive exchange.3 Below are some considerations when interacting with this population when in crisis.
Borderlines’ behaviours are driven by emotions rather than reason.
An important distinction is officers are used to interacting with people who engage in thought-driven behaviour who mainly react rationally and predictably. Due to emotion dysregulation, however, borderlines may experience anger, fear, or sadness asynchronous with the severity of the circumstances. Their emotions guide their behaviour. It is therefore crucial officers convey genuine consideration by focusing on the emotions the BPD is expressing. This tactic increases the chance the borderline feels understood and their feelings recognized, in turn, building rapport and trust.
Since borderlines are incapable of effectively regulating their emotions, problem-solving may be hindered. BPDs commonly engage in dichotomous thinking, whereby delineated experiences are either good or bad without a middle ground, and as such, fall into one of two extremes. Such emotionally-fused thinking can lead to dramatic behaviour, extreme bouts of rage and accompanying threats of self-harm, including suicide. Officers should consider attempting to manage the BPD’s emotions before trying to solve problems.3
Individuals with BPD view the world as hostile.
Borderlines don’t necessarily understand that others don’t perceive the world through the same lens. Borderlines in crisis are hypervigilant, regularly conducting emotional threat scans for cues and signs of rejection and condemnation. Moreover, BPDs commonly engage in projective identification, attempting to control their emotionality by attributing it to others. This mechanism is expressed through vilifying others, including police, by calling them names, challenging their authority, or declaring that they’re incapable of helping them. For this reason, the use of humour, sarcasm and self-deprecation should be minimized as it can be misconstrued and taken personally.
Slow things down.
Time tolerance plays a critical role in these situations. Borderlines can feel as if they’re not being understood if they perceive the officer to be hurried, potentially compromising the trust-building process and escalating the situation. Officers need to prepare for lengthy interactions involving substantial and sudden changes in emotion.
Communication skills are crucial.
Below are some valuable tactics in police-borderline crisis interactions, underpinned by active listening and paying attention to cues that may indicate emotional changes and safety concerns:
- Providing reassurance. Humanize the situation by using your first name without rank and reiterate you are there to help, acknowledging the person’s situation.
- Mirroring. Repeating the last few words that have been said conveys relatedness, which facilitates connection.
- Emotional labelling. Validate the borderline’s emotions by acknowledging them without perceived judgment.
- Efficiency of words. Have only one officer speak and talk quietly, calmly and concisely, employing silence and only talking when there is a purpose.
- Minimizing distractions/stimuli. Reduce overly stimulating environments as much as possible. For example, decrease the number of first responders and marked vehicles when it is safe to do so, and minimize emergency lights and sirens.
- Avoiding advice. Offering suggestions may be perceived as hypercritical or disrespectful and risks evoking an emotional response.
Lastly, police officers are encouraged to monitor their own stress levels when engaged in such encounters. It can be highly frustrating at times, and emotionally exhausting when engaged for lengthy — and often repeated — occurrences.
Your job as a law enforcement officer is not to diagnose but to recognize features that may lead you to determine whether someone has traits of BPD in order to develop a more effective way of communicating with the subject and diffuse the crisis.
1. Borum, R. & Strentz, T. (1992) The Borderline Personality Disorder: negotiation strategies. FBI Bulletin Vol. 61 No. 8 – pp 6-10.
2. Ireland, C. (2011) Application of Personality Disorder to the Critical Incident: considerations and implications. Conflict and Crisis Communication: principles and practice. Ed. Ireland, C., Fisher, M. & Vecchi, G. Routledge: New York – pp 93-111.
3. McMains, M., & Mullins, W. C. (2014). Crisis negotiations: Managing critical incidents and hostage situations in law enforcement and corrections. New York, NY: Routledge.
Dr. Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. His clinical appointment is with the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health in Toronto, and he is an associate professor with the University of Toronto. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own and may not reflect the opinion of the OPP, University of Toronto, CAMH or his mother. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Const. Matthew Tomlin serves in Ontario and is the mobile crisis response co-ordinator of his police service. Matthew is also adjunct faculty at several Ontario colleges. He holds a BA in Psychology, an MS in Criminal Justice, and is completing a PhD in Forensic Psychology. He can be contacted at email@example.com.