An ‘All hands on deck approach’ is needed to address the nation’s mental health crisis.
That means greater levels of state and federal funding, and enhanced collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral practitioners.
At least that was the message delivered by a group of experts during a recent criminal justice panel discussion titled “The Intersection of Law Enforcement and Mental Health.”
Speakers focused on the broad array of challenges facing today’s criminal justice professionals and the current trends, as well as future initiatives that shape law enforcement’s engagement when dealing with mental health issues.
Panelists underscored the significance of the problem on a national scale.
More than 100 students, faculty, law enforcement officials and community members gathered for the Oct. 7 discussion, hosted by Saint Leo University.
There’s no question, the challenges are far-reaching.
Approximately 43.8 million adults in the United States experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The organization also reports 46% of Americans will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime.
Panelist Dr. Christopher Cronin, a Saint Leo professor of psychology, cited an American Psychological Association report that shows there are now 42,000 suicides annually in the U.S. That marks the highest rate in 28 years, and is up 24% percent since 1999.
“This is clearly an epidemic,” Cronin said.
For law enforcement, it has made a tough job even tougher, as officers work the frontlines of the mental health crisis.
One study shows that a quarter of the people shot by police are in a mental health crisis at the time when the use of force occurred, Cronin said.
However, Cronin added, law enforcement is not necessarily to blame.
“They have been forced to do a job — become mental health professionals — for which they have not been trained,” the professor said. “Officers are trained to take control of a situation and to give lawful commands, however, a person in a mental health crisis cannot conform their behavior and a situation escalates.”
Some noted incidents have included “suicide by cop.”
This phrase refers to a situation in which an individual deliberately behaves in a threatening manner, with intent to provoke a lethal response from a public safety or law enforcement officer.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, another panelist, understands the challenges facing his deputies.
Law enforcement seeks to mitigate threat situations with bullhorns and less lethal devices, but encounters quickly can escalate, when a person who is suicidal attacks or threatens to attack police or citizens, Nocco said.
“Law enforcement officers are being put in a tough position,” the sheriff said. “We always say, ‘The safety of the citizens around that person and the deputy has to be paramount,’ because if they’re charging at you…the reality is — we have families, we want to go home, too.”
Michelle Allen, a Saint Leo criminal justice undergraduate instructor, reiterated points raised by her fellow panelists, Cronin and Nocco.
“How are you as an officer supposed to recognize that this person is suffering from mental illness? How can you look at somebody in the five seconds and say, ‘Oh, he’s mentally ill…’ He’s fighting you. What do you do, because you want to go home, too,” Allen said.
Before venturing into higher education, Allen spent two decades in Georgia, working for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office and Smyrna Police Department, respectively.
Many arrests occur when people are in a mental health crisis or breakdown, and have either gone off their medications or have not yet been diagnosed, Allen said.
Pasco Sheriff’s Office estimates as many as 20% of its calls for service are mental health-related.
In an initiative to “get ahead of the curve,” the agency has established a specialized Mental Health and Threat Assessment Team (MHTAT). That team is trained to keep tabs on the county’s residents who have been referred on repeated occasions for involuntary evaluations, under the state’s Baker Act.
However, Allen noted, if a crime has been committed, the mentally ill still must be treated like other suspects, in the interest of officer and public safety.
“These people are not necessarily violent, not necessarily criminal,” she said, but she added, “you want to definitely get that person in handcuffs…and then determine what’s going on with them.”
More frequent encounters between police and the mentally ill can be traced to the deinstitutionalization or closing of mental health hospitals in the last 60 years or so, according to Dr. Moneque Walker-Pickett, another panelist, who is the associate department chair of criminal justice and a criminal justice professor at Saint Leo.
The number of available psychiatric beds has plummeted, according to data cited by Walker-Pickett.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that today there is roughly one psychiatric bed for nearly 3,000 Americans, while in 1955, there was one bed for every 300 Americans, Walker-Pickett said.
Facility closures have resulted in an increase of people with mental illness winding up in America’s jail and prison systems, she added.
She explained: “It resulted in putting a lot of these people on the streets, it resulted in having people at home who weren’t getting the treatment that they needed, and as a result, sometimes there were interactions with law enforcement. You see that happening more and more — these interactions with law enforcement.”
Walker-Pickett also pointed out alternative treatment wasn’t appropriately provided in lieu of the closing of mental health facilities, particularly in low-income communities “who don’t have access to affordable or appropriate health care.”
Published October 16, 2019
Note: See more on this panel discussion in first story, below.