More on Improving Police Confrontations with the Mentally Ill

By Dr David Laing Dawson

A comment on our recent blog arrived from a police officer via Linkedin. This is an excerpt:

“However, a law enforcement officer arriving on scene has no way of knowing if the behavior of an individual is due to anger, being distraught, being intoxicated or on a controlled substance or if the person is mentally ill. What the officer will observe is that the individual may present a danger to himself or herself, the officer, or others. At this point officer safety and the safety of the public remains a priority. Therefore, the officer cannot, as you suggest “decrease the volume, lessen the threatening, provocative stance, back off…””

He is right. An officer does not know, upon arriving at the scene (this being of course between 10 and 30 minutes since the call went in) if the behavior of the person is “due to anger, being distraught, being intoxicated or on a controlled substance or if the person is mentally ill”.

Precisely. And in all these situations my guidelines still hold. Anger is driven by fear, and increased by threat. Intoxication adds an unpredictable element but now time is even more on your side, and high volume, threats, demands are falling on deaf ears. The guidelines still hold.

And another excerpt from the same officer: “the individual may present a danger to himself or herself, the officer, or others”

“Threat to self or others”. Okay. For “threat to self” the guidelines hold even more. Shooting the person in question is hardly a good prevention for “threat to self”, and moving too quickly will ensure that person jumps or stabs or shoots. Remember, 10 to 30 minutes has elapsed since the person was first seen to be, or heard to be, threatening harm to him or herself.

“Threat to others”. Yes, if the “perp or unsub” is holding a knife to someone’s throat, you may, with my blessing, shoot him. As police so often do (successfully, with pinpoint accuracy) on television.

But does that ever happen in real life? Do police officers ever arrive on the scene at the precise moment when someone is in the act of (not threatening to, but in the actual act of) killing, stabbing, shooting someone? It must be very rare. Of course if that actually happens, the officer must act quickly if he or she can do so safely.

But in all the recent incidents of tragic outcome, there was no one else on the trolley, no one else in the apartment, no one else in the airport lounge, no one else in the backyard, no one else in the park. No other lives were in imminent danger. And for the officers to have remained safe themselves they need have only slowed down, backed off, calmed down, talked softly.

So, yes, with no other lives in truly imminent danger, the guidelines still hold. Back off to a distance at which the officer and the subject both feel safe. Slow down. Time is on your side.

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