Policing and mental illness: Many questions, no easy answers

Posted on in Health Delivery System

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
Jul. 28, 2016.   DOROTHY COTTON

Dorothy Cotton is a forensic psychologist in Kingston, Ontario. She works regularly with police services on issues related to their interactions with people with mental illnesses.

There is still much to learn about the recent death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali immigrant who died after a foot chase and an attempted arrest by Ottawa police. Those close to Mr. Abdi have reportedly said he suffered from mental illness. This incident brings up questions often asked after such tragic events: Do we expect police officers to be trained to handle mentally ill citizens? Are they counsellors, or soldiers?

As a psychologist who works with police services, I spend a great deal of time pondering questions about how police interact with people with mental illnesses. Every time there is such an interaction that ends badly, we all wonder “why did they do that?” In the age of the sound bite, we want a solution. A simple solution. A pithy solution, implemented within 30 days. We want a fill-in-the-blank answer – to think that if we just do that one thing, then it will all be good. But what is that one thing?

Do we need to educate and train? Maybe – but many police services have extensive training already and improvements occur every day. But knowledge has its limits: How does one span the gap between knowledge and behaviour?

Do we improve selection and supervision of officers? Are officers involved in these unfortunate incidents just bad apples? According to Statistics Canada, there are somewhere in the vicinity of a million interactions between police and people with mental illnesses each year in Canada and the vast majority end well.

Research even tells us that most people with mental illnesses have a fairly favourable opinion of the police.

Do we need to improve mental health services? There is no doubt that in some places services are scarce and police may be, by default, the only 24/7 service providers. But even when mental health services are available, people may not opt to use them or the perceived need for an immediate solution may make their availability moot.

Do we need to change police culture? Is it time to retire the whole macho thing in policing and reward and reinforce officers for not using their powers? While as noted there is an increased amount of training about mental illness and de-escalation techniques, the amount pales in comparison to the amount of training an officer receives related to use of force and other displays of physical prowess.

When selecting and promoting officers, should patience and empathy be considered characteristics as important as how fast you can run and how much you can bench press?

If you are an officer, you get to be on the front page of the paper for saving a drowning child or surviving a shootout with the local gang. But no one gets acclaim for talking down a person who appears to have a mental illness or taking a person who is suicidal to the hospital. For all the times we hear the refrain “we are not social workers” from police, perhaps that is not entirely true.

Police officers do have a significant social service role. It is an integral part of the job and we need officers who embrace rather deny that aspect of their job. Contemporary policing is much much more than law enforcement.

Indeed, law enforcement takes up very little of police time. Police agencies are now called police services for a reason. The public expects them to do much more than just enforcing laws.

The answer, of course, is that we need to do all of these things. That’s what makes the whole problem so difficult. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the training and education issues, and with good reason. But having the knowledge and skills is not enough.

Change will require the right people with the right knowledge and skills in the right organizations in a forward-thinking community with the right supports for people who face mental health challenges.

Police services are social agencies much like many other agencies. The difference is that police have unique authorities. The challenge is for them to use these unique authorities sparingly.

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