Assessing Police Attitudes toward Mental Illness

Article excerpt

ARTICLE REVIEWED:

Cotton, D. (2004). The attitudes of Canadian police officers toward the mentally ill. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 27, 135-146.

Increasingly in our society, citizens with mental illness are deinstitutionalized and placed in the care of the community. This trend is often due to treatment program cutbacks, and more strict criteria for commitment to psychiatric facilities. As a result of this, police officers are becoming frontline managers of mental illness in our communities. It may be argued that mentally ill persons are more likely to come in contact with police than are other citizens, both as offenders and victims of crime. They may also be more likely to call police for assistance than non-ill citizens, and as a population they are more vulnerable to crime.

All of the above factors bring to light the necessity for police training in managing mental illness on the job. Many injuries, and even deaths, in or following police custody involve detainees with some form of mental health problem. This could be the unfortunate result of a fearful reaction on the part of the police in those situations. It could also be a lack of recognition of the illness, or a lack of access or knowledge of how to access mental health resources. Nationally there is a shortage of police training in managing mental health concerns. This is the situation nearly everywhere but in larger metropolitan areas.

As an insightful response to these issues, Cotton (2004) conducted a study that examined police attitudes toward mental illness. In this study police officers completed the Community Attitudes toward Mental Illness (CAMI) scale. This scale was created in 1981 by Taylor and Dear and has shown to be both a valid and reliable tool for measuring attitudes.

The CAMI assesses attitudes across four scales. A positive score for authoritarianism would indicate a belief that mentally ill persons should be institutionalized, hospitalized, controlled and disciplined. A positive score for social restrictiveness would mean the participant endorsed a belief in the dangerousness of the mentally ill and a need to keep a social distance from them. On the other hand, a positive score in social benevolence indicates a feeling of responsibility for the mentally ill, and a need for advocacy on their part. Scoring positively on the scale of orientation toward community integration (Community Mental Health Ideology or CMHI) would reflect agreement with deinstitutionalization and the idea of community integration and support for persons with mental illness. Included at the end of the CAMI survey were several exploratory questions that evaluated police officers' opinions on the current situation of mental illness in the community and their role in managing it.

In her study, Cotton (2004) collected data from members of the Police Department in Kingston (population 120,000), Port Moody (25,000), and from selected detachments of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in rural Eastern Ontario. Each department had approximately equal representation in the study. The questionnaires were distributed and police officers were asked to fill them out on their own time and return them by mail. In all, 138 police officers participated, including 112 male and 26 female officers. The average age was 37.8 and the average number of years experience in the police service was 14.2.

Responses to the question concerning previous training related to understanding mental illness indicated that 76% of the officers had some form of training in this area. Divided by rank, 67% of these officers were Constables, 15% were Senior Constables, 13% were Sergeants, and 5% of those trained were Senior officers.

The scores on the CAMI indicated that the police officers surveyed did not display high levels of authoritarianism or especially socially restrictive attitudes toward persons with mental illness. …