No cop wants to face a mentally ill person who is threatening themselves or others--nor do law-enforcement jurisdictions want to be responsible for assessing and handling mental-health issues. But the statistics tell us that law-enforcement agencies are most often the ones that become involved when the situation becomes desperate.
So smart jurisdictions are moving to equip their officers and prepare their jail staff to take the right steps. Training, proper assessment and accreditation all can make a difference--especially when things go wrong.
Training: Every law-enforcement agency should have specific procedures for dealing with the mentally ill. When tensions are running high and officers must make split-second decisions, the procedures must be so ingrained that they become instinctive. Training helps officers recognize the signs of mental illness and distinguish them from those of someone abusing drugs. Training can help officers recognize signs that the person is about to take violent action: increased agitation, a shift in breathing patterns, a rocking motion or a verbal count down. Training is also a defense argument during litigation to prove the agency took every reasonable step to avoid tragedy.
Assessment: Once a mentally ill person is in custody, he or she must be properly assessed and handled. Although law enforcement is not responsible for obtaining long-term treatment or solutions, the agency must protect the mentally ill from themselves and protect others in custody. This may include establishing a suicide watch and removing materials that could be used for self-harm.
Accreditation: Another compelling argument in court can be accreditation as properly trained to handle mental-illness cases. The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies is a national organization whose goal is to improve the delivery of law-enforcement services, control liability insurance costs and provide greater accountability. The accreditation process examines all policies and procedures, including those that focus on dealing with the mentally ill.
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July 1, 2007
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