As this study points out, these encounters can lead to negative situations and even to death, injuries and legal issues.
In essence, the relationship and involvement of the police from a formal point-of-view is based on two common law principles. These are, the facility and the responsibility of the police to protect the safety and welfare of the public, and secondly the principle of parens patriae, which dictates protection for disabled citizens such as mentally ill persons. (Teplin L.A., 2000)
Usually mental health codes are specified as to the degree of involvement of the police with the mentally ill. These "...instruct police to initiate a psychiatric emergency apprehension whenever the person is either dangerous to self or others or is unable to provide for basic physical needs so as to protect him/herself from serious harm" (Teplin L.A., 2000).
While there are legal parameters to the involvement of the police with the mentally ill, these procedures cannot dictate the response that the police officer might have to the different types of situations that may occur. In other words, there are few prescribed and definitive procedural rules. Even more importantly, in many case there has been little or no training in how to deal with the mentally ill - although this is an aspect that is being dealt with in many areas today
In summary, there is in reality an emphasis on the fact that the police officer is required to exercise the appropriate and necessary discretion in dealing with encounters with the mentally ill. However, the literature indicates that this is an area that has not yet been adequately addressed in terms of training -especially with regard to the eradication of various prejudices and stereotypes relating to the homeless and the mentally ill. These aspects are seen to be in need of improvement.
The police officer encountering a mentally ill and irrational person has a limited number of choices. He or she can transport the person to a mental hospital; arrest the person or resolve the matter informally. (Teplin L.A., 2000)
These options are limited and limiting. For example, choosing to transport the individual to a mental hospital necessitates a certain amount of training in ascertaining the individual's condition also necessities a great amount of bureaucracy and legal 'red-tape'. In a well - known study of police officer decisions in encountering mentally ill individuals by Egon Bittner (1967) it was found that "....the police reluctantly made psychiatric referrals and initiated hospitalization only when the individual was causing or might cause serious trouble. Even so, officers resorted to a mental hospital only in the absence of other alternatives" (Teplin L.A., 2000). Later studies also found that the police tended to try to deal with these situations informally and not through legal or psychiatric channels. This raises the question of training and the preparedness of the police officer to deal with these situations. One study found that police officers resolved situations informally in 72% of the cases, made an arrest in 16% of the cases, and initiated emergency hospitalization in 12% of the cases. (Teplin L.A., 2000)
Another issue that of impacts on this subject is the assertion that police officer are too quick to arrest mentally ill individuals and that this had led to an increase of these individuals in the prison system - a situation that has negative outcomes from a healthcare and psychiatric point-of-view. The underlying causative factors are important to understand by the police officer. As Sigurdson, (2000) states, "
There also are many reasons why major mental illnesses themselves leave individuals vulnerable to incarceration (and homelessness). When untreated, these illnesses impair judgment, thinking and mood. Individuals may be incapable of finding and keeping adequate employment or accessing mental health services. Disordered thinking leads to the mistrust of normal support systems, such as families, churches and the mental health system... Paranoid delusions can lead to criminal behavior (Sigurdson, 2000, p. 70)
The above quotation indicates the subtleties of this problem and the level to which the police officer has to be sensitized to the predicament of the mentally ill person. This again leads to the question of adequate research and training.
Considering the above views, many critics are alarmed at the number of mentally ill persons who are incarcerated. This is due to the fact that, "Law enforcement and judicial practices also contribute to the large numbers of mentally ill men and women in jails and prisons. There is evidence that police arrest mentally ill persons more often than they arrest the general public" (Sigurdson, 2000, p. 70).
On the other hand, there are also indications that police officers are learning how to deal with situations involving the mentally ill in a more integrated and comprehensive way. As Sigurdson (2000) notes, "In many communities, the police are considered more capable of responding efficiently to a mental health crisis than is the local mental health system" (p. 70). There is also an increase 'mercy bookings' and efforts to provide safety and shelter for the indigent.
However, a factor emphasized in much of the literature is that the large number of mentally ill people who are being incarcerated is largely due to "...our current restrictive civil commitment processes" (Sigurdson, 2000, p. 70).
It is also useful to examine the reasons given by police officers for arresting mentally ill and homeless people. This provides and indication as well of the underlying problem areas and fault lines in the system. A study by Teplin (2000) found that there were three main situations in which the police resorted to arrest.
When an individual was thought to be either unacceptable to the hospital or when his or her symptoms made him fall through the cracks of various caretaking systems.
When the police felt it was likely that the person would continue to cause a problem if something were not done.
When the situation, if unchecked, would escalate and require further police assistance (Teplin L.A., 2000)
Importantly, the study also points out that are many "grey areas" when it is difficult to decide between common disorderly behavior and mentally disordered behavior. This one again emphasizes the importance of further research into the implementation of proper training in the identification of mental disorders.
The expansion of policing functions
The above discussion has served to illustrate some of the obstacles and problems relating to the interaction between the police and the emotionally ill and homeless. Very generally, these can be summarized as inadequate training, legal and civil statutes that impede adequate and human interaction and various levels of stereotyping and prejudice towards the mentally ill.
While there are many other reasons for the statement that the police are being "overwhelmed" by the number of mentally ill offenders, there are also contrasting studies and reports of efforts being made to rationalize and 'humanize" the process of dealing with the mentally ill.
As an example, one report states the following.
Police frequently encounter individuals who are mentally ill.
Departments' approaches in relation to these individuals vary greatly, whether in general encounters or in specific incidents that have become dangerous stand-offs. Some departments have created special "crisis intervention teams" specifically trained on mental health issues. These special teams often collaborate with local mental health officials and respond jointly to calls for service involving persons with a mental illness.
Policing and Mentally Ill Individuals)
An aspect that is clearly allied to the issue at stake and which is an indication of changes in altered perceptions and methods of dealing with the mentally ill and homeless, is the movement in recent years towards the concept of community policing. This aspect brings into focus some important facets of the problem under discussion. This aspect is also important in terms of understanding why many of the present protocols and approaches of policing are inadequate.
The role of the police, as has already been suggested in the introduction to this section, is one that has been expanded and developed in many countries, including the United States. This refers, for example, to the issue of community policing and the police officer as an integral part of the community policing. This is also related to the "problem -solving "approach to policing. The following definition summarizes the essence of this approach. "Community policing is a philosophy, management style, and organizational strategy that promotes pro-active problem solving and police-community partnerships to address the causes of crime and fear as well as other community issues." (Community Policing). In a theoretical and ideal sense community policing is, collaborative effort between the police and the community that identifies problems of crime and disorder and involves all elements of the community in the search for solutions to these problems. It is founded on close, mutually beneficial ties between police and community members.…