Police Officers' Knowledge about Mental Illness

Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Police Officers' Knowledge about Mental Illness


ABSTRACT

Although a need exists in the police community to provide training for police officers to aid in their work with mentally ill individuals, little is known about the existing or baseline level of knowledge of the police and how that relates to what they need to know. The present study surveyed three Canadian police departments and found that the overall level of knowledge about mental illness was not necessarily different from that of firefighters and thus did not seem to represent a unique body of knowledge related to mental illness that is specific to policing. Although some officers were extremely knowledgeable there was no apparent relationship between knowledge and age, rank, years of service, gender, or level of education. Although many officers displayed a basic ability to recognize overt symptoms, most did not have an appreciation for the implications of these symptoms for a person's subsequent behaviour and response to police interventions. These observations point to the need for systematic training on mental illness for police officers to ensure that all officers possess the requisite knowledge to interact effectively with individuals with such individuals.

When governments initiated broad-based programs to reintegrate those with psychiatric disorders into the community, a variety of community services and supports were contemplated. It may be argued, however, that one less contemplated community agency which has been significantly influenced by deinstitutionalization policies has been the police. Although not an agency usually considered in the development of mental health systems, there is no doubt that as psychiatric institutions have downsized and closed, police involvement with individuals experiencing mental illnesses has increased (Teplin & Pruett, 1992; Patch & Arrigo, 1999). There is little doubt that some skill in working with mentally ill individuals is essential to a police officer's ability to carry out his or her duties. Most police officers report regular contact with individuals with mental illnesses (Borum, Deane, Steadman, & Morrissey, 1998; Trovato, 2000; Cotton & Zanibbi, 2001).Involvement with the mentally ill, however, often creates a puzzling and somewhat problematic role for the police. It has been suggested that most police officers have little or no training in dealing with the mentally ill, and integration between the police and mental health agencies is often poor. Deane, Steadman, Borum, Veysey, and Morrissey (1999), for example, surveyed police departments in American cities with a population of over 100,000 and found that 55 % had no specialized response for dealing with mentally ill persons. Similarly a survey of Canadian police agencies found that most jurisdictions outside of major metropolitan areas had no specialized services or training in place to assist officers in dealing with mentally ill individuals (Cotton, 2001).

The above observations take on an even greater significance given that working with the mentally ill is inevitably part of police duties. In addition, when violence and mental illness go together, police services are often the designated intervention agency and may have to use coercive force if necessary (Trovato, 2000). As such, in many cases, the police become "the frontline extension of a mental health system" (Chief Coroner of Ontario, 1994, p. 15). Although it is difficult to quantify the number of calls that the police receive involving the mentally ill, an indication of this situation may be found in the Toronto Police Service Statistical Manual which estimated that in 1998 approximately 10,000 calls for service were received involving 'emotionally disturbed people' (as cited in Trovato, 2000).

Given the significant estimates of involvement such as those in Toronto, a number of police agencies have recently initiated training programs to assist officers in working with individuals with mental illnesses.

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