Welcome to our fourth column by a veteran Southeast Michigan police officer who'll be identified after he retires in the next few years. These columns field reader questions and provide perspective on police issues. Send law enforcement questions to email@example.com.
By the Anonymous Cop
That’s the answer I get when I ask coworkers what percentage of police calls they think involve mental health crises.
I have to agree. In fact, 70 percent might be low.
Until someone becomes an officer you never have any idea how much “crazy” is actually out in the world or, more politely, how many people struggle with mental health issues that reach some kind of crisis that calls for police intervention.
We’re not talking about the depression or anxiety that so many of us have that is exacerbated by economic, political and social instability, say during a global pandemic. We’re talking post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness like schizophrenia, substance abuse…even times when those conditions lead to the person’s defiance that comes out as tragic “contempt of cop” situations like I’ve written about.
You may have one “crazy” neighbor or a family member with some issues. You may have had a run-in with a stranger exhibiting bizarre behavior, and you just chuckled or told management and walked away.
We, the police, get called to each of those situations every day:
Your neighbor who is living in squalid conditions and hoarding but refuses help.
The relatives who are suicidal and have to be committed against their will or worse -- they’re too afraid to commit suicide so they attack us and hope we will shoot them in a “suicide by cop” scenario.
The guy talking to imaginary people as you walked passed him and chuckled who is actually having a psychotic break and is highly paranoid. There is almost no way to get control of him for transport to a hospital without putting our hands on him and forcefully strapping him to the EMS gurney.
These are everyday calls for service.
Then there are the property crimes, when someone steals something from a house, car or business. Most of the time that property – your possessions – is sold for drugs.
In my decades in this job, I’ve never, ever seen anyone robbing someone to pay the rent or the mortgage. They’re looking for money for drugs. Or they’re using drugs and lose the judgement that prevents them from committing crimes. (Kind of like when all of us have brought a pint glass home from a bar after a few…)
And there’s a bigger connection to some crimes and mental illness – why people use in the first place. People who have a mental health problem often self-medicate by using and abusing.
It's 'officer,' not 'doctor’
Addicts never have their shit together. I had one poor guy in his 20s crying after he was arrested for crashing his car while on heroin. He was in the booking room and said he only used heroin to stop the voices in his head.
He was crying and begging for help to stop the voices. I’m not a doctor, nurse, counselor or other kind of mental health professional. What could I do? We took him to the hospital for treatment instead of to jail for punishment.
Unfortunately, often those suffering from mental health problems who act out violently do end up incarcerated.
If you think that’s where they belong, you are dead wrong. And if you’re in a position to do something about it, please do.
Jails and prisons only aggravate their conditions. Hospitals can’t take violent people.
So how do we deal with cases with mental health issues?
Honestly, not well. And asking us to do it on a daily, even hourly basis isn’t fair. Not without some serious changes.
Here’s what I’d do: Give us training for starters.
Back to school
In my 20-plus years as an officer I can count on one hand how many hours of mental health training I’ve had and still have a finger or two left over. There is some internal department training and a few one-day classes that departments can send officers to. But those are expensive, and often departments don’t have enough officers working to send one away for a day.
The police academies teach cadets about an 8-hour block on this topic, but that’s about it. Most of our training in how to deal with mental health issues is through older officers “instructing” from their own experiences, which may not be the right thing to do, but it’s what they know. We also learn through our own trial and error.
Which doesn’t work and certainly isn’t a best practice when lives are at stake.
Earlier in my career, I had always thought it was best to calmly and patiently tell someone when they suffering from delusions:
The 40-something guy pacing in front of a busy grocery. I told him: “No, you are not Jesus, and we are not in France, you are having a psychotic episode.”
The stereotypical sweet little old lady we checked on after a neighbor suggested a safety check. She had life-sized dolls of children throughout her house. (It was as creepy as you think.) I tried saying: “No ma’am. There are not people in your basement whispering that you should take your dolls for a walk at night.”
Years after these calls – because no one in my own department or any trainings told me I should do anything differently – I asked a psychiatrist if this had been the best course of action for me to take.
“Absolutely not,” she told me.
The doctor advised me that we should play along with the delusion to manipulate the person to do what we want.
(So some of my senior officers had been right when they used to tell people to make tin foil hats to keep alien radio waves from controlling them. But this is a dangerously inadequate means to respond, I’m sure you’ll agree.)
My 911 Call for For Change
So what’s needed?
Having trained, mental health experts who could respond instead of cops would sure help. The “defund the police” agenda calls for this, and despite the ridiculous name of this movement, shifting to mental health response instead of law enforcement would help many of our cases.
Reducing police budgets and using those funds for mental health work is a public policy proposal most cops I know actually agree with. They may think that because they are lazy and want someone else to handle these calls. But what should and NEEDS to happen is that police officers are trained to respond AND we have mental health professionals who can help us.
Until a psychiatrist is answering 911, it’s my colleagues and me who will be on the call of a naked man running through a parking lot breaking windows. (That’s common and called “excited delirium.”)
What gives me hope? My department’s new young officers are constantly asking for more training in mental health and are far more attuned to issues of Asperger’s, depression and PTSD.
They grew up with these mental health realities being discussed openly in school, the media, maybe even their families. They want to be better able to handle mental health issues. As I’ve described how crime is blended in with mental health problems, so should be our response.
We could use some more money, not less, to train up our officers but also realizing that they will never be experts. So let’s develop a system of mental health professionals that can actively respond to situations. Blended problem and blended solution.
And then maybe we can respond properly to those 70 percent of calls, get people the correct help they need, and make your community a little safer and more peaceful.