Dealing with Mentally Ill Offenders

By Janik, James | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Mentally Ill Offenders


Janik, James, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Daily, problems associated with mentally ill offenders confront law enforcement personnel around the Nation. The residual effects of hospital deinstitutionalization, cuts in public assistance, rising unemployment, and a decline in low-income housing, to list a few factors, elevate the mentally ill population to the fastest growing segment in local jails nationwide. (1)

Yet, these same factors establish roadblocks for officers to obtain proper treatment for mentally ill offenders. Overburdened, understaffed, and underfunded community health clinics often cannot respond properly to emergencies that the police bring them, and many hospital emergency rooms are ill-equipped to handle the sometimes violent, intoxicated, or antisocial mentally ill offenders.

Fortunately, solutions exist for the problems posed to law enforcement by these individuals. This article discusses both the problems and some potential solutions regarding the increasing involvement of law enforcement with the mentally ill. Reflecting the complexity of the issues involved, the problems, as well as the suggested solutions, address the wide range of challenges facing the criminal justice system.

Police Interaction with the Mentally Ill

For the most part, the mentally ill commit misdemeanor crimes, such as trespassing (rummaging for food), loitering in stores (for warmth or protection from the weather), indecent exposure (because they are denied access to public restrooms), theft of service (not paying for a cab ride), or a "dine and dash" (failing to pay a dining bill). As the range of these offenses indicates, mentally ill offenders usually come into conflict with the law when attempting to fulfill a personal need. Further, they are most likely to be arrested when engaged in behavior harmful to themselves rather than criminal behavior. (2)

In addition, police interaction with the mentally ill often occurs during responses to domestic dispute calls, the seriousness of which are frequently compounded by substance abuse. Rarely classified as routine, domestic calls can escalate without warning and represent some of the most dangerous calls for law enforcement officers.

Complicating the potential explosiveness of domestic disputes is the fact that the mentally ill often do not appreciate their own diminished capacity. They may fear or rebel against those who appear to ignore their wishes, those who compel them to attend treatment sessions, or those who force them to take medications with undesirable, and sometimes disorienting, side effects. Perceiving themselves as helpless, mentally ill offenders are prone to threaten physical harm in order to intimidate others from approaching them.

Unable to discern these threats as empty, many officers respond by asserting their authority. While this approach usually restores the peace, mentally ill offenders, desperate to assert themselves in situations in which they feel hopeless, often do not respond as expected to such assertions of authority.

Further, mentally ill offenders often exercise poor judgment by taunting police officers in public or in front of other offenders. Officers, in turn, fear that the actions of the mentally ill will encourage others to test the limits of the officers' ability to control them. Thus, situations involving the mentally ill can easily escalate, possibly resulting in physical altercations. This, in part, may explain why the police arrest the mentally ill more frequently than "non-mentally disordered" persons who commit similar offenses. (3)

Although the mentally ill still comprise a small portion of the total police workload--less than 10 percent of all encounters--they often absorb a disproportionate amount of police time, either in efforts to convince family or friends to look after mentally ill offenders or because these offenders reenter the system repeatedly. (4) Arresting officers realize that mentally ill offenders should not be held responsible for their actions at the time of a crime. …

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