Blue Line


September 10, 2012  By Tom Wetzel

633 words – MR

People in crisis
Encouraging positive mental health encounters

by Tom Wetzel

No matter where they work, police officers will likely encounter individuals with mental health handicaps ranging from depression to paranoia. Contacts may involve people in a crisis or committing crimes. How officers respond may influence whether force is used, criminal charges filed and what kind of followup treatment a person receives.


A significant amount of effort has gone into better preparing police to address and assist citizens with mental health problems but much more can be done. This will not only make officers safer, it will better serve those in need.


Academy training should include visits to mental health institutions to meet staff. First hand encounters with those who spend entire shifts with temporarily institutionalized individuals can allow officers to better understand what a person in crisis is experiencing and how best to address them while still recognizing officer safety concerns.

Hearing from professional care takers and seeing the environments in which individuals may spend their time healing may increase officer empathy for those they will encounter in crisis.

The value in ongoing verbal skills training is imperative. So much conflict is resolved through the calming presence of an officer who uses words and non verbal actions to defuse situations where stress levels are high. This is valuable for so many situations but is particularly important for those in a mental health crisis.

Verbal skills training should be mandatory requirements in all training academies, if they are not already, and should be mandated as an annual block of training for all police agencies.

{More crisis response officers}

Crisis response team officers are an excellent asset for every agency and they should earmark funds to ensure they have members trained and certified in this field. They can be particularly effective in crisis situations where a person needs to be talked down from harming themselves; trained officers can also be effective hostage negotiators if required to take on that role.

{Crown and court’s role}

To prevent persons from being misplaced in a criminal justice system instead of a mental health system, officers need to communicate with Crowns on situations where a particular “criminal act” is better addressed outside a court’s walls. This can be accomplished through an innovative diversion program coordinated through the court for those who may get better results through supportive measures rather than punitive ones. It is difficult to put a bright line rule on these types of decisions and the interests of victims must be considered but if common sense sprinkled with empathy is applied, the interests of all involved parties can be well served.

{Deeper appreciation from leadership}

Whether through written correspondence or training efforts, police leaders can be especially effective in stressing the importance of serving those with mental health handicaps, as their actions will influence and shape their agency’s culture.

A good consideration would include an agency’s rewards and recognition efforts. Chiefs appreciate officers who are productive. Some of the measurements for that productivity are numbers of arrests or citations issued. An officer of the year award may go to the officer who had the most felony arrests. This is understandable and certainly appropriate in many cases but one manner in which police leaders can demonstrate their commitment to this effort is recognizing officers who best serve the mentally ill.

Also, when promotional or lateral positions become available, how an officer deals with the difficult circumstances of someone in mental health crisis should be considered when deciding who moves where within the agency.

Efficient and effective service to those clients with special needs is an important aspect of a police officer’s role of “protecting and serving.” These efforts show an agency commitment to making their community a good place to live and work.

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