As we look at police use of force involving people with mental illness, I see a number of assumptions and issues that we need to consider and remember.
First, and sadly, not every one of these incidents is going to “come out right.” Police encounters with the mentally ill sometimes bring a high potential for violence. There is no guarantee that there will be a peaceful, win-win solution every time. Human behavior is complex and is made more complex with mental illness. We always need to strive for the best outcome. But such outcomes are neither easy nor assured.
Next, most people think violence is choreographed. It is not. We see scripted, choreographed violence every day on television and in the movies. In the real world, violence brings fear, surprise, chaos and, too often, horrible real-world consequences. Those who have experienced combat can tell you that it’s not like the movies.
We sometimes assume that if a mental health worker becomes involved in a police encounter with a mentally ill citizen, everything will end peacefully. This assumption is also wrong. Mental health professionals are a real advantage but their presence does not guarantee de-escalation. In fact, mental health workers regularly call the police when they can't handle potentially violent or actively violent situations. Again, there is no universal means to bring a peaceful end to every incident.
But the remarkable fact is that most such incidents do end peacefully. Police confront violent, mentally ill individuals many times every day in our area and yet you don’t hear about bad outcomes every day. Bad outcomes are the exception. Ordinarily no one is injured or killed. And, therefore, these incidents are not controversial or newsworthy.
While involving mental health professionals in responding to these calls provides no guarantee, it can often help to achieve peaceful outcomes. It is here that a problem arises. Our states and our local jurisdictions have drastically reduced access to mental health services. We cut state and local budgets for mental health and then expect police to pick up all the pieces.