First and foremost, my heart and prayers go out to victims and families who are suffering as a result of this week’s shooting in Vegas. Also a huge thank you and good job to the first responders; police, fire and civilian!! As always, Hero’s run towards the sound of gunfire! May GOD bless and care for you all!
Just like Lucy from the Peanuts comics, police officers since 1984 have been required to play mental health professionals.
I happen to be one of those millions of Americans who call themselves a “baby boomer”, although I have noticed that as my generation ages we are referred to more as “boomers” and most have dropped the “baby”. Since I personally self-identify as a “mid-twenty something handsome stud” – I find this offensive ☺
One perk I do enjoy however is the “senior” discounts and early bird dinner specials. Another perk, although a blessing and a curse, is I am able to look back to my early years of policing and see the changes, both good and bad in culture and police work since then.
One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb for me and affects much of the current events you are hearing about right now is Mental Health and the police response to individuals suffering from these issues.
It affects everything from officer-involved shootings (OIS) to mass causality shootings like the horrible and tragic one just experienced in Vegas this past week, the Colorado theater shooting in July 2012, Sandy Hook in December of 2012, and a host of others over the years.
This article is NOT addressing gun violence, gun control, new laws or anything to do with current political debates, save one… mental health issues. I am not attempting to blame, point fingers or add fuel to any current outrage or political talking point. My point in this article is simply to look deeper into what has become commonly known as “policing the mentally or emotionally disturbed”.
Full disclosure, I voted and supported President Regan; I personally thought President Regan was a good man and great President. Although he was not perfect, no man is or ever was, except for one carpenter many years ago, and my DrydenWire cohort in crime, Brian Cole can address him more.
For all my respect for him, in 1984 President Regan signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) which was the statute that repealed President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act which was supposed to continue federal funding for mental health programs that really got their start in the 1970’s. This single act is now known as “deinstitutionalization” of those with mental health issues.
Now on the surface, anything called “Deinstitutionalization” sounds like a good thing, especially when you let your mind wander to childhood horror films reflecting life in 1950 “Insane Asylums”!
But this repeal did much more than that! Almost overnight millions of Americans that suffered from varying stages of mental health issues found themselves out on the street with nowhere to live, no medications and no one to care for or about them. Now perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration, or from my viewpoint and perspective of a working street officer, but none the less I stand by what I wrote and think on the topic. I leave it to greater minds than mine to dissect the full effect of this action.
All I know is that people who were cared for and living with minor issues, minor only because they were being treated and had medications provided were now on the street causing mayhem.
Although there were many, there was one apartment complex in my jurisdiction that had several individuals with mental health issues living there. The apartment, medication and periodic professional care were being paid for with federal, state, county or local city funds designated for mental health. These were individuals were considered “functioning” with minimal assistance needs. In other words, their issues were not severe enough to be in an “institution”, yet they were not fully capable of just being on their own either without continuing care of some sort. Think of this situation like a half-way house, or mid-point back to normal social integration.
All of a sudden the police were being called to these apartments that previously had very little police activity to now being called on a fairly regular basis. We were encountering these subjects wandering around the city, getting into fights, causing disturbances and in general acting irrational and “troubled”. Folks that months earlier were waving and saying “hi officer”, holding jobs and interacting well with society were now fighting with us and causing problems because of altered states of mind, perceptions, or simply unknown reasons.
Resources like local or city mental health officials were shut down and those that remained were so overwhelmed with cases that they could do nothing to assist. Often times we had no choice but to arrest these people, now putting them into the criminal justice system, where we could. Remember you can’t lock up someone who is not guilty of a crime! If we did arrest, we could sometimes take them to the hospital Emergency Room (ER) for “evaluation”. And then maybe get them a bed and treatment for a few days “IF” they happened to say something to the evaluating ER doctor that indicated self-harm, or harm to others, but if not, back on the street they went.
By the close of the 1980’s, it was estimated that over 50% of the Los Angles California homeless suffered from mental health issues, and near 20% nationwide.
Fast-forward to 2017; Studies indicate that over 48 million Americans suffer from some form of mental health issues and only 41% of them are receiving care or treatment. 26% of homeless that regularly use homeless shelters have mental health issues and this says nothing about the homeless that don’t go to shelters, there is really no way to tell how many of them suffer from issues. Over 20% of incarcerated prisoners have mental health issues. I wonder sometimes how many would not be prisoners at all except for untreated mental health issues.
So now we have millions of Americans, many homeless with untreated mental health conditions, with very little and limited resources for care and treatment. In addition, we have 100’s of thousands of “institution” hospital beds that have been emptied or complete programs and institutions shut down.
So what have the professionals, the politicians, the government and quite frankly you and I, and the public done to address this over the years since the mid-1980’s? Like the old “Chex” commercials, let’s get “Mikey to try it”! Let’s make this a police issue.
Yeah, that’s it! Let’s leave it to the 24/7 and still makes house calls, cops!! Their awake anyway and have nothing else to do!
Well, that did not end well – many negative police encounters with mentally disturbed people later demonstrated that this might not have been the best idea. So did we then collectively address the mental health issue, no! We punished these early police officers involved in these encounters for not knowing better and mandated more training for the police in dealing with the mentally ill.
So now it’s October 2017 and some new Illinois laws just took effect – many of them dealing not with mental health, but rather in dealing with the mentally disturbed “training” for the police. The same police who have been left holding the mental health bag! In other words, not worthy laws about providing treatment, care, and medicine for the mentally disturbed, but instead laws about mandating training for police officers to deal with them.
Let this sink in for a second….. Okay ready?
This is like the government passing laws that say medical schools have to provide training to doctors on grief counseling so they can console your family after you get sick and die from an untreated ailment, rather than mandating medical schools teach doctors how to treat you in the first place and hopefully avoid the whole death thing, to begin with.
Between “cultural awareness and sensitivity” and “dealing with individuals with mental health issues” Illinois police officers, and make no mistake about it, I’m sure this is nationwide as well, have almost more mandated training combined on these two issues than they do on officer survival, firearms and general police enforcement duties.
I often think of this when I “suit” up for a shift…..
- Body Armor – Check
- Sidearm – Glock .45 with 2 extra Mags – Check
- Backup weapon - Check
- Taser with extra Cartridges - Check
- 2 sets of handcuffs – Check
- OC Pepper Spray – Check
- COBRA\ASP Baton – Check
- Patrol Rifle with extra Mags – Check
- Ballistic Shield, breaching tools – Check
- Medical Trauma \ Critical Care Gun Shot Wound Kit – Check
- Professional Ability to Treat, Care or Deal with Mentally Disturbed Persons – Um, Er, - Check??
Although I have encountered 100’s if not 1000’s of mentally disturbed “subjects” over my vast and long career, I will be the first to tell you, this is NOT the way. I love the police, I love my profession and I personally believe I am very good at it. I am very proud and thankful for my brothers and sisters in blue and brown (can’t forget our nations Sheriffs and Deputies! - Love ya, Sheriff Dryden)
But we, the police… are reactionary to these issues of mental health. Sure we patrol and can PREVENT many crimes just by being seen, being present. Most burglars don’t show off their skills in front of me.
Patrol duties do prevent some crimes, but no one with mental health issues says to themselves when they see a police officer… oh, crud! I better wait until the police leave to experience my altered state and problems.
No! Instead, we are called by family, friends, the public etc., during or after an incident already happened. After the 25-year-old son who was not on the medication he should have been if he were being properly treated, has an “episode” melts down and beats his mother and father almost to death with kitchen cabinets he ripped out. Who then barricades himself in a room and has a 2-hour stand-off with responding officers, only to lead to a violent conclusion. Yup, been there, done that, got the Tee-Shirt and I might add the injuries and scars as well from trying to subdue or contain, without hurting him.
I’m not trying to be flippant here, but after all, he has mental health issues, it’s not his fault. That does not mean we don’t subdue, or that he does not get hurt, or we willingly do, it just means that there are options involving use of force that we try to avoid and perhaps we do take more of a risk, knowing it’s not a “criminal” we are taking down. Some of my worst fights and injuries were a result of these encounters just because of this fact. We don’t cause injury to stop someone, we stop someone which sometimes, most times… causing injury. We know this and alter our actions.
So this brings me back to the current and recent past mass shooting incidents. We can discuss gun control, new laws, the second amendment and bump stocks all day long… you have your viewpoints, I have mine and I doubt we will ever change each other’s opinion. That’s okay and not the point of this.
Personally I have been involved with firearms since youth, carried a gun my entire adult life and although I have mistreated them, yelled at them, locked them in cold dark safes and shoved cleaning rods up their ***, I have never had one “turn” on me or go out late one night to wreak havoc. I have however encountered people that have committed the havoc, sometimes by gun, sometimes by nothing other than their hands and with every implement in-between from knives to hammers.
About the Author: Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.