Editor's note: The Moultrie Observer invited members of the local law enforcement and mental health communities to respond to a recent column criticizing the interactions of police and mentally ill individuals (see the link at left). This is the only response we received by this issue’s deadline, but the door remains open for anyone who wishes to add their expertise and experiences to the discussion.
As a mental health professional, I took great interest in your article by the Mental Health Alliance of Portland and strongly agree with the perception that the use of force by police towards those with mental illness and/or addictive disease is a critical component of any meaningful discussion on police reform. While there may not be adequate data concerning the percentage of crisis responses involving mental health/substance use issues, any officer or outpatient clinician can tell you a disproportionate amount of law enforcement time and resources are devoted to such individuals.
I believe this is in large part due to the broad overlap between mental health and criminal behavior. Many times, officers and mental health staff are serving the same population, but with different mindsets, training and assumptions about human behavior. It is difficult to note who would better serve community interests until an onsite assessment has been made. An individual who is intoxicated, developmentally disabled, suffering from PTSD, or experiencing a psychotic break is likely to respond differently than a “rational” person in the same situation. To ask a law officer to recognize this difference and respond accordingly within a few seconds during a crisis can be an overwhelming request.
So, the most relevant statement in this article may have come from the officer venting “I didn’t go on the job to be a $#@$% social worker.” He/she is absolutely right. It was neither his intent nor training to be a social worker. To expect him to respond as one, as the article stated is “a set up for disaster.” But no more so than equipping a therapist with “a gun, a taser, a baton and handcuffs” without training and expect him/her to perform law enforcement activities if a crisis situation warrants it.
While cross training of officers is beneficial, most successful community programs have found multidisciplinary responses to be most effective. This has included law enforcement training their own “crisis intervention” specialists to work alongside officers, employing mental health “crisis response teams” or laypersons with “lived experiences” in mental illness to assist officers in crisis situations.
What is needed is a coordination of efforts between law enforcement and mental health professions to ensure the right person with the right training responds to a crisis. And it may be a surprise to many the amount of interaction that has already happened in this arena. There is conversation at the local, regional, and state levels that has been ongoing for several years. Some of the results of these interactions have included the following:
- • The Governor’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission governing mental health services includes law enforcement representatives. Many mental health service boards, including Georgia Pines, has followed suit and recruited officers for their boards as well.
- • Recent laws have allowed judges more authority to mandate treatment for individuals who become dangerous to themselves or others when not receiving proper treatment.
- • Annual mental health training for law officers is offered in most counties in our region (Colquitt County was one of the first to accept and benefit from this training).
- • The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities continues to develop and fund programs such as “Mobile Crisis Unit,” “Assertive Community Treatment” and Behavioral Health Crisis Centers to respond to community crises involving mental illness.
- • Georgia Pines is augmenting existing services to incarcerated individuals who were previously transported to outpatient sites by sending therapists, nurses and even practitioners directly into the jails.
- • Law enforcement officers continue to offer personal support and/or transportation for mental health professions when requested.
In the current climate of shrinking budgets and decreased funding, it will become even more important for both of these noble and essential professions to work together to provide the protection and services the community needs and deserves. Fortunately, I feel the groundwork for this collaboration has been set and will continue to grow in the future.