New age cops – the future innovation of community policing

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 29, 2016 I have long been an advocate for prompt and comprehensive treatment for those afflicted with mental illness.  Now police are increasingly linking up with mental health agencies as a way of diverting mentally ill person’s from jails into treatment for their emotional affliction.  In my experience this is no easy task.  In some cases criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.  Some who suffer with emotional issues like bipolar depression, drug addiction or anxiety may respond poorly to treatment and may need containment. Those most refractory to treatment often become most difficulty to manage in society.  The untreated mentally ill have a higher rate of violence than those in voluntary treatment.

psychology2As early as 1984, I served the pediatric population in Boston at the Boston City Hospital Pediatric Emergency Department as the on-call clinician in psychology. That same year I was appointed to the ED at Hale Hospital in Haverhill, MA for screening people in crisis.  Those who were stable and had support systems in place would be released – usually with an outpatient referral. Meanwhile, patients without at-home safe guards who could not plausibly answer the question “what brought you to the decision to harm yourself?” were admitted to the hospital.  Other mitigating factors like healthy living arrangements, employment, sobriety, and no history of suicidal behavior were positive indicators of future outcome.  It was a position I loved and is an important clinical role to this day across the United States.  Later as a community mental health psychologist in Long Beach, CA, I served the Children’s Service as someone charged with screening adolescents in crisis living across Los Angeles County. In each of these locations I worked closely with social workers, case managers, police and gatekeepers at state and county psychiatric units to find open beds for kids in need.

In 25 years since there has been very little innovation and fewer still treatment beds for those in need. Today’s depressed and emotionally wounded often spend days in emergency department hallways further wounded by a demoralizing system of delivery that is overwrought and has no place to send them.  This scenario was the case in 1985 and remains the case in 2016.  In Massachusetts and counties across the United States publicly funded hospital beds – including state hospital beds have been eliminated.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s the pendulum of advocacy swung toward community-based care and away from hospital-based treatment.  This left the chronically mentally ill without a support net for treatment, medication management and long range hope.  Many became homeless, unemployable and abusive of drugs and alcohol.

Police provide frontline intervention – often with little training

Police officers became the first line of defense as the hospital beds were eliminated. The mentally ill and those addicted to any number of drugs or alcohol grew homeless and sometimes menacing as they struggle with symptoms. Now police officers are being trained to intervene with these marginalized citizens with crisis management skills.  This poses a conundrum for the current zeitgeist of community policing theory in that the notion of dangerousness relies on critical scrutiny of the underpinnings of human behavior and often nonverbal indices of psychopathology. Some believe this is state of the art police science.  Departments from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA to San Antonio, TX are using frontline officers as crisis resolution specialists for police encounters with the acutely mentally ill. Many are paired with licensed clinicians while others are working the streets alone.

The collaboration between police and mental health personnel is not new.  But the use of police officers as crisis intervention specialists is innovative and gaining traction in many places around the country. Yet these officers must always be aware of the uncertainty of some encounters with police and those suffering with paranoia or psychotic, illogical delusions, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury that may not respond to verbal persuasion alone.  Decisions about when to utilize greater force for containment of a violent person is sometimes instantaneous.

The use of force must be fluid and officers in the field are expected to modulate the force they apply to the demands of the situation and be ready to respond to changing threat levels.             Michael Sefton, 2015

In 2002, I was appointed to a Massachusetts police department having once served in southern Maine right out of college.  As a psychologist I made an effort to bring mental health concepts into police work without much fanfare or interest.  Mental health topics are not as sexy as defensive tactics or firearm training, I was once told, so finding numbers was sometimes tenuous.  There are still many myths about intervening with those who are making suicidal and homicidal threats and training opportunities are taking on more importance.  Especially these days.  Suicide by cop became a phenomenon that no officer ever wants to confront. All violent police encounters guide officer behavior. “The degree of response intensity follows an expected path that is based on the actions of the perpetrator not the actions of the police” (Sefton, 2015).

Suicide by cop – predicting behavior

In the 2014 FBI Bulletin, Suicide by cop (SBC) is defined as “a situation where individuals deliberately place themselves or others at grave risk in a manner that compels the use of deadly force by police officers” according to Salvatore, 2014.  This happens more than one might expect and is often preceded by rehearsal events according to Salvatore.  “Suicide rehearsals are practice for the attempts that will follow within a few hours or days. SBCs may be tested. Officers should use caution when recontacted by an individual who previously presented signs of mental illness, had no need for assistance, was standoffish when asked what was needed, or was anxious to assure the officers that everything was fine. The initial contact may have been practice for an SBC.”

The best predictor of behavior is past behavior.  The prior demeanor that police have observed in those frequent flyers who pop up on police radar over and again often sets the stage for violent conflict later on. But not always.  Situations grow exponentially more grave in the presence of drugs and alcohol raising the level of lethal unpredictability. For many struggling with depression or other serious mental illness being sober or drug free can be the healthiest thing they can do for themselves.  The uncertainty of the SBC scenario makes the likelihood of a successful de-escalation a tenuous exercise in the life and death force continuum.

The motives for SBC are multifactorial and undeniably linked to poor impulse control associated with drug and alcohol intoxication.  The triggers are identified by Salvatore as “individuals who feel trapped, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, revengeful, or enraged and those who are seeking notoriety, assuring lethality, saving face, sending a message, or evading moral responsibility often attempt SBC”(2014).  Some believe they will become famous and earn large monetary settlements for their surviving families following a SBC scenario.  Other victims are tortured souls who make no demands and offer no insight into their suicidal motive and are killed when they advance on police or turn a weapon toward responding officers.

Training in police-mental health encounters has slowly taken hold.  This innovation in community policing offers hope for reducing fatal encounters.  No amount of training in crisis management will reduce incidence of SBC to zero but ongoing training to identify the behavioral indices of imminent violence, psychosis, and suicidal/homicidal ideation will reduce these lethal encounters.  Most officers are highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted.


Salvatore, T. (2104), Suicide by Cop: Broadening our Understanding. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September. Taken 12-29-16 Bulletin website https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/september/suicide-by-cop-broadening-our-understanding.

Sefton, M (2015) Blog post Law Enforcement- Mental Health collaboration. Taken 12-28-16, https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/law-enforcement-mental-health-collaboration/

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One thought on “New age cops – the future innovation of community policing

  1. Dr. Sefton, this article by you adds an exceptionally factual perspective to the current law enforcement and societal situation in the USA. Thank you for sharing this enlightening abstract about a subject that must now be mitigated very quickly and very thoroughly. The most effective way to end mental illness is through family and loved one’s. The sole job of law enforcement is to stop problems threatening citizens. They are not responsible for knowing who is ill or why they are ill. They also are not responsible for caring about those factors to any degree whatsoever.

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