I have watched with growing concern the media coverage of what has been termed police brutality to those who live with mental health conditions. It is my opinion that much of what has occurred between the police and people who live with mental health issues can be directly correlated to the training officers receive in the academy. There is a vast misunderstanding of the behaviors of people living with severe mental conditions that clashes with that basic training.
WHAT POLICE OFFICERS ARE TAUGHT IN ACADEMY TRAINING
During academy training, police officers are taught to use tactics to quickly gain the upper hand in a situation that could potentially be deadly to themselves. They are taught to use an authoritative voice, demanding that they be obeyed. In training scenarios, they are given instructions on how long to wait for a response from a suspect, and what constitutes resisting arrest. In normal situations, these well-tested and tried tactics work very well, however when dealing with someone who is mentally compromised they can be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.
A COMPROMISED ABILITY TO RESPOND
A friend of mine, once spoke to me about her son who lives with Schizophrenia. She explained that people, like her son who are in an active relapse, are not able to process information quickly. She told me that her son, in an active psychosis, often cannot understand or process instructions given him for up to twenty minutes. She worried that in a situation where he would be confronted by a Police officer who is demanding he do something, he would appear to be disobeying. She felt great concern that in such a situation her son would be in grave danger.
She reiterated, It isn’t that her son doesn’t want to respond, he simply cannot comply.
As an added layer of the possible misinterpretation of a situation by a police officer, there are many mental health disorders that can leave a person vulnerable, not only to the untrained officer, but to predators as well. A person who is dissociated, confused, or in an active psychosis is more likely to be harmed by unscrupulous people. They need to be protected, not treated with anger.
CRISIS INTERVENTION TRAINING
I have been involved in crisis intervention training (CIT), a program where police officers and other people involved with the legal system are given guidance on how to handle a person who is experiencing a mental health crisis. As a person living with a severe mental illness, I can teach about my own disability, answering questions and offering my story on how to treat others with my condition. During this training, I have had the honor to sit and speak for several hours with these keepers of the peace, and have learned as much about them as they have about me.
I must to admit, my first visit to CIT training was a bit frightening for me. All my life I had been taught that officers of the law were huge authority figures, and the badged uniforms they wore made me feel intimidated. However, after a few hours of speaking with these fine people, I realized they are only human. They have problems at home and bills to pay just like everyone else. I had many conversations that helped me to gain an inside view of what goes on inside the mind of a police officer when they enter a potentially dangerous situation.
“THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING”
One way they train the officers is to put them through simulations of situations they may encounter with a mentally compromised person. In one version, they were told before they entered a room, that the man inside was suspected of having a gun and being suicidal. Upon entering the room, the officers found the person laying on their side facing away from the door. They were told to go through their regular procedures they would carry out from their normal training. The officers ordered the man to slowly put his hands where they could see them, and to slowly roll over. The man on the floor did neither. In fact, there was no response from him at all. Both officers were at a loss as to what to do.
In a live situation of this type, the man on the floor would be considered resisting arrest and to be a real and present danger because they didn’t know if he had a gun, and if he did where it was located.
One of the officers who went through the above simulation questioned me afterwards about what he had learned. He stated that he was told the man on the floor was mentally compromised from schizophrenia, and wondered why he didn’t answer or at least in some way acknowledge the presence of the officers.
I told him of my friend’s son, and what she had told me about his inability to respond quickly when in an active psychosis. He sucked in his breath, and stated he didn’t know that information. He then said, “That changes everything.”
INFORMATION CAN SAVE LIVES
Information. That’s what police officers and other people in authority need to safeguard the lives of people living with a mental health disorder. The police officers we see in the media harming persons with mental illness aren’t trying to be destructive or cruel, they have no training in how to approach this unusual situation. Their training completely leaves them open to misinterpreting how they should respond to someone who doesn’t do as ordered. We need crisis intervention training to become mandatory for all people who carry a badge. In this way, I believe, we can help them to make the correct judgement in these situations without risking their lives or the lives of the mentally ill they encounter on the street.
“A man can only attain knowledge with the help of those who possess it. This must be understood from the very beginning. One must learn from him who knows.”
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff