The police response to persons with mental illness is an issue that should be taken very seriously among individual officers and their agencies. Police encounters with mentally ill persons first became a major issue in the late 1960’s, when a deinstitutionalization movement began. This was a long legal battle that was designed to protect people who, were believed to be mentally ill. Prior to the 1960’s the mentally ill were virtually “warehoused” in large state psychiatric hospitals in abject living conditions and little emphasis was placed on their treatment. Before the movement began, such persons had very few rights, and it was comparatively easy to confine them to harsh mental institutions for long periods. The movement succeeded, making it more difficult to institutionalize people against their will. As a result of this movement and reduced funding for mental treatment, the number of people confined to mental institutions has declined by at least half a million over the last generation.

Most police departments in the early 1980’s made attempts to incorporate specialized approaches and specific training in how to deal more effectively with the mentally ill. Due to the decline in the number of mentally ill institutionalized and deinstitutionalized and released to alternative placement in the community, admissions to alternative facilities and the development of special services, officers started interacting with the mentally ill on a constant basis. Today, mentally ill live in a variety of settings within the community with numerous degrees of care and means of support, including private homes, halfway houses or group homes, bed and board homes, nursing homes, single room hotels, jails, prisons and homeless shelters. Since there is a large population of mentally ill in the community, police must be prepared to interact with the mentally ill.

Police stand as the gatekeeper between the mental health system and criminal justice system. There are several different approaches in which police agencies deal with situations involving the mentally ill. The first approach is police based specialized police response, in which officers from the department have special training and provide proper intervention. The second approach is the police based specialized mental health response, in which the departments actually have mental health professionals on hand to deal with certain situations to assist officers involved in situations involving the mentally ill. The third approach is the mental health based specialized mental health response, in which departments contact mobile mental health teams to respond to the scene. These approaches help raise the likelihood to provide proper treatment for the mentally ill.

Dunham, R. G. & Alpert, G.P. (2005). Critical Issues in Policing 5th Edition: Contemporary Readings: Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
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