On Improving Police Confrontations with the Mentally Ill

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Some years ago, quite by coincidence, I was at the police station when a call came in about a situation, a stand-off of some sort, someone in a house in the east end of town, perhaps armed, not coming out as requested. I witnessed the preparation. Bulletproof vests and weapons and helmets were brought out quickly and placed on a large table. Men came in through a couple of doors, summoned from whatever they were doing before. They moved around the table claiming the vests, choosing the long guns, checking the load. They milled about. They moved in a circle around the table.

And standing there observing, I (if you will pardon a little poetic license) could smell the testosterone, the adrenaline in the air, the excitement. I could almost hear war drums; I could see this as a dance, a war dance in preparation for a charge on the enemy or a defense of the barricades.

I am not criticizing. It is a human moment. A call to arms. A call to a crisis and the possibility of facing danger. A call to haste and focus. A task at hand that overrides all others.

And it is a situation that requires haste at that moment, that requires some arousal, some adrenaline.

But once these police officers have arrived at their destination, what then?

In every single one of the recent tragedies involving police officers and a mentally ill person, it is clear there would have been a different outcome if the officers (or the one officer in question) had slowed down, had found a way of taking a breath, had, if not relaxed, at least moderated his arousal system, had backed off.

Once there they must slow down. The resolution of a crisis requires that one person not be in crisis. Once there the situation seldom requires haste. Haste is now the enemy. Time is on the officer’s side. Slow down, slow down. At the very least, slow down.

If the situation allows (a boy with a knife on an empty streetcar, a young man alone in his apartment screaming and breaking things, a distraught man in an empty airport lounge, a man on his own property threatening with a hammer), decrease the volume, lessen the threatening, provocative stance, back off, keep a safe distance, a distance at which you and he both feel safe. Take your time. Address the subject as “sir”, in a calm voice, by his last name if you have now acquired it. Not Bob, or Tim, but Mr. Smith.

At this point if you want to move – come closer to talk, stand, or sit, ask questions – ask the subject for permission to do this. (“Sir, is it all right if I move over there so I can talk with you?”) He needs to feel he has some control.

Do nothing to frighten him further. No threats, no demands. Wait. Talk calmly. Talk about what? Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? The purpose of the talk is to try to bring this person gently back to reality and to reduce his fear. The reality of family, friends, hockey teams, good movies, a fine cup of coffee.

All you really may know about him is that he is frightened; he is in an aroused state; he may be misinterpreting reality; he may be fully delusional. Hence the calm simple talk.

But again, slow down. Time is on your side. The subject’s fear and anger will gradually subside if he is not further threatened or provoked.

Police Chiefs and Trainers, please teach the above, and if you find an officer who cannot do these things, who, for whatever reason, cannot slow down, take his time, take a breath, subdue his own fear and threat response, he should not be on the front line.

5 thoughts on “On Improving Police Confrontations with the Mentally Ill

  1. Once the Friends of Schizophrenics were asked by the ambulance people to give a little training on how to approach an individual who was psychotic. The request came after a family had complained about their son being taken in an ambulance. We did our best to make them put themselves in the shoes of someone very frightened and trapped. The Ambulance Brigade was very receptive. We observed that they were also frightened when they had to intervene and take very ill people to hospital.
    One thing we emphasized was quiet voices speaking slowly without too many words and above all no SARCASM .
    However I would say that having been with police to a house where the person is being apprehended under the Mental Health Act, the job is not an easy one and the ill person can be very abusive. likely we would be in the same situation. One has to be prepared for anything. We told the ambulance people that they ensure that they have a clear exit in their plan . But I agree with Dawson not to rush and remain as calm as is possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sensible advice for a potentially dangerous situation

    I agree that the police deserve this kind of training and they don’t get enough now. Just reading these suggestions will not do it. They deserve practical education by well qualified teacher-professionals to explain the research behind it and the time to absorb this advice and follow up testing to ensure they fully understand this positive no-harm outcome we all desire(especially if we were the police).

    Society must protect our mentally ill loved ones and the police who respond to threatening situations. We should protect both groups equally.


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