“I responded to a suicidal veteran suffering from PTSD and depression. He was threatening himself with a knife but asking for us to shoot him. I was able to talk him out of the knife, and ultimately into voluntarily going for a mental health evaluation on a police officer hold. What stands out was that the training provided helped me work through it, keep it slow, and ultimately not only was no force used, but I was able to build and maintain his trust by gaining a voluntary response to help. It was a huge win for me.”
This account comes from Patrol Sergeant Richard Lewis of the Springfield (OR) Police Department, one of the more than 4,200 law enforcement officers who responded to Lexipol’s nationwide survey on law enforcement contact with mentally ill individuals.
The survey is wide-ranging, presenting data on the types of police interactions with mentally ill persons, the strategies officers use to attempt to resolve these contacts, and the availability of specialized resources to support officers on scene. Many readers of the report will focus on the frequency of police interactions with mentally ill persons, the percentage of such contacts that result in injury to officers, and how long it takes most agencies to get specialized resources on scene.
These are important data points, of course. But with so much data to sift through, it’s easy for other key findings to slip through the cracks. Our focus at Lexipol is on public safety policies and training, so naturally I was especially curious what the results revealed about agency policies and training on officer contact with people in crisis. Following are four key takeaways I discovered after digging a little deeper into the data.
#1: Having a Policy Matters
More than three-quarters of respondents said their agencies have a policy on interactions with persons with mental illness and persons experiencing a mental health crisis. That’s a strong number, although it leaves obvious room for improvement.
The survey demonstrates why having a policy is so important: 63% of officers who reported their agency has a policy on interactions with mentally ill persons said they felt prepared to meet the challenges of such interactions. That number dropped to 42% for officers who said their agencies didn’t have a policy. Policy certainly cannot resolve all the challenges associated with contacts involving persons with mental illness, but it sets a critical foundation for the agency to adequately prepare officers for such contacts.
#2: Having a Good Policy Matters
Risk management expert Gordon Graham has written about how too many public safety agencies operate with poorly written policies. Although having a policy on crisis intervention is important, having an effective policy is most important.
In the survey, 22% of respondents said their policies don’t adequately prepare them for interactions with people in crisis. Further, officers’ confidence in their ability to respond was linked to their opinions of their agency’s policies. Just 36% of those who rated their agency’s policy as inadequate said they felt prepared to respond to contacts involving persons with mental illness. But among those who rated their agency’s policy as adequate, 70% said they felt prepared to respond.
Just 36% of those who rated their agency’s policy as inadequate said they felt prepared to respond to contacts involving persons with mental illness.
#3: Training Should Cover Policy
Training is a huge part of law enforcement. Between state and federal mandates, roll call training and annual certifications, many officers probably feel they’re constantly training. Curiously, however, many agencies fail to train on policy. This sets officers up for failure and raises liability risk for agencies.
The survey on police interaction with mentally ill individuals is a good example. Only 64% of respondents said their agency’s mental health crisis training covers policies, procedures and decision-making tools for responding to mental health crisis situations. That means one-third of officers aren’t getting training on their agency’s policies and procedures. Calls involving persons in crisis can be heated, tense and rapidly unfolding. If officers aren’t well trained on the proper policies and procedures to follow, it puts them and the subject at risk.
Case in point: 13% of respondents said they were unsure whether their agency’s policy allowed the use of force on unarmed, noncriminal mentally ill subjects, and 7% were unsure whether their agency’s policy encouraged taking a person’s mental state into consideration prior to using force when they have discretionary time.
#4: Recent Training Matters
Another key aspect of training is frequency. Over the last 30 years, law enforcement agencies have made admirable progress in providing crisis intervention training. In the survey, 85% of respondents said their agency provided training on interactions with mentally ill people or people experiencing a mental health crisis, with 65% saying such training is mandated.
But for many officers, this training comes in the form of a 40-hour course they take once or repeat only every several years. Only 27% of respondents reported receiving training in the last six months, and nearly 30% said their last training on police interactions with mentally ill individuals was 2 years ago or longer, with another 6% saying they can’t recall. Together that’s more than one-third of respondents who haven’t received recent training.
Training frequency has a positive correlation with performance and retention. In some ways, it’s just common sense: If you review material more frequently, your ability to remember it will increase. In the survey, the longer respondents had gone without crisis intervention training, the less confidence they reported in being prepared to respond to persons with mental illness. Nearly three-quarters of those who reported receiving training in the last six months were confident in their ability to respond. That number fell to 59% for those who had gone more than 2 years since receiving training.
Policy and Training Are Key
Policy and training are at the heart of all law enforcement operations. The report notes, “Think of policies as the backbone of the agency, and training as the nervous system. Both are essential for helping officers successfully navigate calls involving people in crisis.” These four takeaways from the survey underscore just how much policy and training matter when it comes to police interactions with mentally ill persons.