Blue Line

We just saved you a ton of work

September 23, 2014  By Dorothy Cotton

There have been a whole variety of police-ish conferences and workshops over the past few months – CACP, CAPG, mental health groups that work with police, oversight bodies, consumer groups… It appears looking at how police interact with people with mental illnesses is the flavour of the month.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me how these things suddenly take on a life of their own. It’s not exactly news that people with mental illnesses are spending more time with police (as opposed to mental health services and providers). There’s been plenty of discussion about this for many years. I guess it must have something to do with some kind of tipping point (breaking point, straw that broke the camel’s back?) or something, but it does seem that pretty well everyone is thinking “ENOUGH.”

However, just thinking that it’s time for change is a far cry from making changes. Of course, one might also ask “What is it that we want to change?” It seems to me that there are two parts to that question. The broad question is, “How do we change the world – or at least our little part of it – so that people with mental illnesses have fewer interactions with police in general?” I can’t answer that question in the space of a column.

Suffice (for the moment) to say that the answer has something to do with decreasing stigma and improving mental health treatment options, housing and employment opportunities. This part is going to take some major structural overhaul by communities and governments.


There is a narrower question, perhaps somewhat less satisfying but more answerable: “Given that police are kind of stuck with this job for the moment, how do we maximize the likelihood that these interactions will end well?” Again, this question leads to a multi-part answer, but for sure one of the parts involves education and training. Not exactly news, I admit.

Everyone is pretty well already on this band wagon (and if you’re not, shame on you!), but there is training and then there’s . Until recently, everyone seems to have been pretty well making up their own stuff – and I’ve gotta say, some of it is truly outstanding.

Then there are those of you who think that handing constables an intro psych text and having them make overheads of the symptoms of schizophrenia is going to do the trick.

Not so much.

Allow me to introduce you to the TEMPO model, a comprehensive framework for training and education for all members of a police agency, based on some of the many fine practices we already have here in Canada – and some other places. This work is the product of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). <1>

You can access it online at:

Its real title is:

TEMPO: Police Interactions – A report towards improving interactions between police and people living with mental health problems.

One of the challenges always facing us in developing this kind of expertise in our own organizations is that we are often reinventing the wheel. The MHCC has already done much of the work for you. They surveyed education programs not only in Canada but elsewhere, reviewed the evidence, examined the gaps… and Voila!

Here is a handy dandy gap analysis tool that you can use when looking at your training to see how you measure up – and where you fall down. Some of you are quite state-of-the-art and need perhaps a little tinkering but no more. Others need to pull up their socks.

So where might you start? Well, you might read the report. You might see if your organization has some of the same gaps that seem to be common across the country, including:

  1. Insufficient focus on the issue of stigma and attitudes: You can train up the wazoo in terms of academic knowledge and specific skills, but if folks still equate mental illness with danger – and continue making “crazy” jokes in the locker room – when the time comes to make a split second decision, the bias will also be toward using a higher rather than lower level of force.

  2. Lack of inclusion of people with mental illnesses in the design and delivery of curriculum: You wouldn’t develop educational or liaison programs about the LGBT community without consulting them directly. Nor would you try to improve relations with a racial or ethnic group without including them in the process. Why do we almost uniformly ignore people with mental illnesses in our program development (see #1 for the answer)?

  3. Lack of connection between education about mental illness and use of force training: We know that a disproportionate number of force events involve people with mental illnesses yet we treat use of force training as a separate entity from education about mental illness. They are not.

  4. Lack of inclusion of call takers, communications and dispatch personnel in training: If these folks get the right info and transmit it in the appropriate fashion, things will go better. Sure, it can be very difficult to figure out what’s going on from a panicked phone call but you want to at least give these folks the tools the need to make a decent stab at it!

  5. Ensuring that first responders know what options are open to them: The fact is that we will never make police into mental health professionals – and we don’t want to. That means they have to know their counterparts and local agencies – and how to work with them and understand a bit about each other’s cultures.

Generally, the report acknowledges that while there are common denominators across all jurisdictions, it is also true that training is not “one size fits all.” Different organizations exist in different communities with different resources and needs. Within an organization, the first responders have slightly different needs than the sergeants, ERT-types, communicators or coach officers.

What size are you?

<1> In the interest of full disclosure I will point out that I am one of the co-authors of the report, so needless to say, I think it is the cat’s meow.

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