Forensic Mental Health: Contemporary Issues and Interactions Involving Justice-Involved Persons with Mental Illness

neacjs-logo-US-left-colorv21-300x251WESTBOROUGH, MA April 30, 2017 The Northeastern Association of Criminal Justice Sciences has announced the date for its upcoming annual conference to be held in Rhode Island at Roger Williams University in Bristol.  The conference will be held on June 7-10 2017.

The topic this year is Forensic Mental Health: Contemporary Issues and Interactions Involving Justice-Involved Persons with Mental Illness that has been in the news when it comes to police encounters with those so afflicted.  In Massachusetts alone over 120 people thought to suffer with mental illness have been involved in lethal force situations with law enforcement between 2008-2016.  The program is still being drafted but I have been invited to present the Psychological Autopsy as a Forensic Tool along with my colleague Brian Gagan and co-author of the Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake – Dexter,

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Dr. Sefton discussing psychological autopsy of Steven Lake with coauthor Brian Gagan (left)

Maine Homicide-Suicide in 2011.

Police are building bridges and throwing life savers

WESTBOROUGH, MA  – March 30, 2017  Police officers are being trained in crisis intervention techniques across the country and Canada. This training offers plenty of practice role-playing scenarios that come directly off of the call sheets affording a reality-based training opportunity. I recently spent time riding with members of the San Antonio PD mental health unit and have the greatest respect for the officers with whom I rode.  In contrast, some departments regularly have highly trained clinicians riding with officers bringing expertise in mental illness and abnormal behavior across the thin blue line.  It is thought that by sharing knowledge at working with unpredictable, drugged out, psychotic and delusional and angry who police encounter on a daily basis better outcomes may be achieved. No single model is best and all are still in the growing stages of establishing protocols for bringing those most disturbed individuals in from the margins. More and more officers are receiving CIT training every year.

The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged in by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time.  Community policing is not a new concept but fiscal priorities often prevent its full implementation.  Just the same, there must be trust and respect between the police and the purveyors of crisis intervention and mental health risk assessment including doctors, nurses, and health care practitioners. This also takes time and training and the shared belief in the model.


“When officers are faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures,” according to Grace Gatpandan, spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department


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Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in 2017 photograph

The use of force continuum belies each officer contact and guides the process when police are called upon to defuse a dangerous encounter. It is best that a mental health contact be made long before violent threats are made – long before terminal rage erodes personal judgment. The community policing doctrine affords this front end contact and encourages officers to know the people living on the beat.

POLICE ENCOUNTERS WITH MENTALLY ILL CITIZENS

The Boston Globe Spotlight series on police encounters with the mentally ill cites one distraught parent who was quoted “I only wanted the police to disarm him not shoot him dead.” Unfortunately for this family, when faced with lethal violence it is the behavior of the subject that drives the ship in terms of what will or will not happen.  “When faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures”. All too often people fail to see the cause – effect relationship between citizens with guns or other lethal weapons and the police officer response.  The use of force continuum follows the principle of causation by guiding police decision making based on the level of threat.

What came first the threat or the police action?  It is the primary action of the citizen the evokes the lethal response by police.  If citizens dropped weapons and listened to police officer directives during these high energy and chaotic events there would be fewer deaths.  To say they lack training in mental health is preposterous.  Almost as preposterous as saying if they were better parents the mentally ill subject might not aim his gun at police or threaten his mother with a knife.  No, the responsibility lies with the mental decision-making and subsequent behavior of the subject himself.  If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.  When people attend psychotherapy sessions and 12-step recovery programs the proclivity for violence is greatly reduced.  Inevitably, drug abuse is a co-morbid factor that alters perception and fuels underlying anger and violent tendencies.  Who is responsible for this? When drug addition or alcoholism begin – all emotional growth including adult “problem solving” begins to fail until it is fraught with uncontrolled, impulsive violence. Rather than placing blame, greater emphasis on sobriety, counseling and developing emotional resiliency should be encouraged.


Lowery, W. (2015) DISTRAUGHT PEOPLE, DEADLY RESULTS: Officers often lack the training to approach the mentally unstable, experts say. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/06/30/distraught-people-deadly-results/?utm_term=.86e44d33dfab Taken March 5, 2017

Scene safety: crisis management and police training

 

WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 7, 2017 What happens once the “scene is safe”? Usually the hostile threat is taken into custody – either to jail or a hospital. In the aftermath of high stress events such as talking a violent alcoholic into surrendering there should be an opportunity to follow-up and bring closure.  In the time it takes to defuse a potentially lethal citizen encounter the police officer has established a connection – however slim it may be.  Aftermath intervention may go a long way to further validate the first steps taken with the initial encounter.  With such high incidence of polydrug abuse the threatened violence may take on a surprisingly banal theme and the importance of sobriety may be realized once the scene is safe.

Most officers are already 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.

I have been called to the same home over and over when a violent adult male became intoxicated and gradually overwhelmed and depressed.  Each time officers went to the residence there ended up being a fight.  We deployed OC spray on more than one occasion each of us getting the pepper in our eyes.  This man was hooked up and sent to the hospital time after time. Upon his return (usually within 1-2 days) he would have a short period of sobriety and slowly start drinking and abusing his father again resulting in the same battle we had days, weeks, months ago. Interseting to me was that the younger man was quite reasonable when he was sober. He had no interest in seeing a therapist – nor could he afford one.  The important question to me was what steps could be taken to link this guy to a 12-step alcohol (and drug) recovery program? There were meetings in our town and they were free.  I thought if he could meet a sponsor than hs abuse of his father might be reduced.  In any case, sooner or later someone was going to get seriously injured on a call at this home.  We had heard rumors of him wanting to commit suicide by cop.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens said Sefton in December 2013.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported. The same goes for crisis management.  The relationships you build while in the community can serve to help soften the scene and slow down an escalating person of interest who may be looking for a fight.  Violence often occurs after a period of brooding isolation that is fueled by alcohol and a bolus of rage.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  Now they are being trained to better interact with those thought to be mentally ill.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the potentially hostile foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.

“To say that it is because they lack training in techniques of crisis de-escalation is short sighted” Sefton 2015

WESTBOROUGH, MA  October 28, 2015 “To say that it is because they lack training in techniques of crisis de-escalation that some deaths may have been prevented is unfair and short sighted.” This quote was first published in the summer 2015 when people (perhaps in the media) first started calling for police officer training in mental health awareness and de-escalation training for police officers. One source actually suggested providing more training in mental health de-escalation and less training in the use of force – including firearms. Some wrongly believe that this “sensitivity training” will reduce the number of officer involved shootings with those who are known to be mentally ill.  Unfortunately police shootings of mentally ill suspects has been on the rise in the past 12-18 months.  Yet the use of force in police work continues to enter the collective consciousness when images of police officers acting aggressively toward defiant high school student go viral on social media.

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School Resource Officer take down of resistant student from posted You Tube video

Arguably, when the police are called to keep the peace or investigate a violent person call they are required to meet this threat with heightened vigilance for personal and citizen safety.  When a violent person is encountered the use of force continuum comes into play.  In the case of the Columbia, SC high school student who was aggressively choked and slammed to the floor while seated at her desk, the school resource officer was rightfully fired. The student posed no immediate threat such that hands on tactics were required to control a menacing suspect. In this case, the student was angry at being told she needed to put away her cell phone and was defiant to teacher direction. The police were called to the classroom as a show of force when neither the teacher nor the administrator could redirect her behavior.

If the violent person is actively aggressive or menacing with threat of lethal injury to the police or others than there is unlikely going to be any successful de-escalation until the threat of lethal force is eliminated.  If the violent person responds to officer directives to cease and desist all violent action and submit to being taken into protective custody or arrest – only then can mental health assessment be initiated. At the moment of crisis the need for public safety in all violent situations supersedes the individual need for care of a mentally ill person.  In the case of the South Carolina high school student no such threat existed but non-physical tactics were ineffectively deployed. The officer may have been able to diffuse the situation with empathy, understanding, and firm authority. The arrest could not be made without a higher degree of force for an actively resistant student that first punched the police officer.

Sefton, M. (2015) Blog post taken 10-28-2015 https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/calling-for-de-escalation-training/