Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and domestic violence. For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray – whether an arrest is made or not. This affords them a window into the chaos within the effected family system and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis. In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold. At these times the communication between family and police may be operationalized, improved and redefined. When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.
WESTBOROUGH, 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,
Maine Homicide-Suicide in 2011.
WESTBOROUGH, MA – April 24, 2017 There is no magic solution for de-escalating someone who is in “crisis” or emotionally distraught. The loss of control may signal a failure of reality testing that can signal a diminished capacity to appreciate the consequence of their behavior. This occurs frequently when people who have mental illness have co-occurring drug and alcohol addiction. It is true that the correctional system has more than its share of mentally ill prisoners but for many being in jail is the only way to stay sober. The full capability to provide mental health services in the correctional system here in Massachusetts has not been realized. The courts are reluctant to require that someone receive treatment for mental illness and/or substance abuse in lieu of going to jail.
Criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive so there will always be a high number of incarcerated persons with chronic underlying psychiatric diagnoses. The prevalence of mental illness in the general population may range from 5-15 percent. The degree of mental illness in the correctional system may be as high as 40 percent by some accounting but the number is misleading. One needs to consider treating mental illness when it becomes a barrier to functioning such as in schizophrenia or bipolar depression where the symptom profile interferes with reality testing. Only then may a contract for treatment may be constructed to include medication and psychotherapy depending upon the diagnosis. In cases where mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse exist a determination about primary diagnoses and treatment options must be considered.
“The consequences of dual diagnosis include poor medication compliance, physical comorbidities, poor health, poor self-care, increased risk of suicide or risky behavior, and even possible incarceration” according to Buckley and Brown, 2006
In many cases of emotional crisis those in need can be diffused with recognition of their struggle – such as death of family member or loss of employment. By showing empathy for their emotional burden police officers and mental health providers can intervene and make a real difference. But effecting change takes time and a consistent message that personal responsibility begins at home. Instead of placing blame on a “system” that is filled with holes individuals need resilience and family support to get the help they require. Before I am criticized for being insensitive, I point to the 12-step programs in alcohol and drug recovery. They are free and in many cases provide 24-hour support and mentoring at times of crisis. I strongly believe that if people can remain clean and sober than the need for crisis intervention will decrease. Ostensibly, this is a perfect first step toward recovery and will bring forth a palpable reduction in emotion and reduce the potential for violence. When substance abuse is stopped emotional growth is more able to take hold. Healthy, more effective problem solving may result from prospering emotional maturity allowing for resilience and enhanced coping.
Stress can engulf individuals and families for a variety of reasons and should not be judged. People cope with stress differently and in many cases achieve emotional relief by having someone to talk to. Some clinicians believe great personal change may be possible when coping skills are most frail. But in too many instances, drug and alcohol abuse present a confounding variable when working with person’s diagnosed with mental illness. At the same time this raises the risk to law enforcement exponentially. Why?
One response to stress is the increase in substance use and with that increase there is often a worsening of any underlying mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety. “There could be a common factor that accounts for both, primary psychiatric disorder causing secondary substance abuse, primary substance abuse causing secondary psychiatric disorder, or a bidirectional problem, where each contributes to the other.” (Buckley and Brown, 2006) Unemployment, early childhood trauma, financial burdens, and random emotional baggage result in a range of actions that foreshadow regression and failure of coping mechanisms that put us all at risk. Some people are able to endure extreme levels of stress with little to no outward sign of distress while others boil over at the first sign of conflict or emotional ripple.
There is a growing push toward alternative restitution and jail diversion for those with mental health and substance abuse problems. In San Antonio, TX, the Bexar County jail had been filled to capacity for many years. As a jail diversion and mental health program evolved the population dropped by 20-25 percent from 5000 inmates to 3800. Data suggests that over one quarter of all prisoners may experience mental illness or substance dependence/abuse and are not receiving treatment. But here in Massachusetts the systems are not available to make this innovation an effective reality in any scale. Many departments are using jail diversion options such as drug treatment and counseling but here in Massachusetts psychiatric treatment cannot be court mandated. Arrest may not be indicated simply because a person is in crisis but those in crisis may be involved in some type of criminality such as assault, criminal threatening, domestic violence and property crimes. So what options are available? The drop out rate for patients suffering from major mental illness is quite high. They often stop taking prescribed medication and do not attend counseling sessions.
MENTAL ILLNESS, CRIMINALITY AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
As a police officer I found jail diversion a discretionary tool that was used a great deal. Nevertheless there are times when arrest is the proper course of action but jail diversion remains a possible negotiating point for those charged with some crimes. The correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath follow-up and intervention when the immediate crisis has settled from the events that brought police to this dangerous threshold. Arrest is mandated by state statute when one spouse has visible injuries. Whenever possible using a restorative justice model – often limited to incarcerated individuals – may allow those arrested for crimes against persons to reconstruct their encounters with police and gain concrete understanding of events and the impact substance abuse may have had on the actions taken by themselves and law enforcement. Some never attain empathy for victims, family members including action taken by police and wind up behind bars. Police encounters with persons having co-occurring mental health and substance abuse are frequently violent and often result in charges for assault on a police officer and more. In the aftermath of these encounters offenders may be sent to treatment in lieu of formal charges with the understanding that sobriety and psychotherapy are indicated. In cases of treatment avoidance police have the option to file charges later on.
Techniques for understanding mental illness may facilitate mutual understanding and establish the needed bridge to facilitate treatment as published in 2015 (Sefton, 2015). Those seeking diversion from incarceration must demonstrate the willingness to change and take responsibility for their actions. The relationship between law enforcement and community agencies is one that requires a strong foundation and mutual understanding of the framework for reducing recidivism, criminality, and managing mental illness.
Buckley, P. F., & Brown, E. S. (2006). Prevalence and consequences of dual diagnosis. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 67(7), e01-e01.
Sefton, M. (2015) Emotionally distraught – nearly one-quarter of all officer-involved shootings go fatal. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/emotionally-distraught-nearly-one-quarter-of-all-officer-involved-shootings-that-go-fatal/. Taken March 5, 2017.
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 12, 2017 Changes in the responsibility for those afflicted with major mental illness must remain in the hands of medical and psychiatric providers who are trained in contemporary diagnosis and treatment models. Yet a growing mental health strategy has emerged to train and educate first responders – including the police to deescalate and divert those with mental illness from jails into treatment. The problem with diversion here in Massachusetts and New England is that a continuum of care is lacking. Since the closure of the state hospital system here in Massachusetts the community-based treatment centers have been overwhelmed by the volume of cases they must see. To say they have failed is shortsighted and disingenuous and behalf of the Globe Spotlight team.
Make no mistake about it, putting police officers in the place of psychotherapists and psychiatrists is not going to happen here or anywhere. But cops are being asked to act as mediators to diffuse encounters with persons with suspected mental illness. The intention is to reduce violent encounters between the police and those with mental health issues. “Most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill” according to Liza Gold, 2013. Yet in the past several years there have been many high profile officer-involved shootings involving people afflicted with a variety of psychiatric conditions including major depression raising the specter of suicide by cop.
POLICE ACT AS CRISIS MEDIATORS WITH MENTALLY ILL
It is very risky putting the police in the role of crisis intervention specialists to manage those who may be emotionally distraught. For one thing the high incidence of drug and alcohol intoxication in these cases makes any negotiation or mediation almost impossible. I was always taught that until the patient is sober there is no meaningful assessment or interaction is possible. Police are the front line responders to crises of all kinds. Asking them to serve in this new role presents a level of officer specialization like never before. Some officers are being asked to offer unconditional positive regard to those encounters in an effort to slow the scene giving time for intervention to take hold. In some places like San Antonio, TX and Vancouver, BC it works. But it has taken a long time to gain traction. If the goal is to avoid incarcerating those with mental illness this is especially difficulty in the absence of a treatment continuum as I have said. In the cities just mentioned there is a well established mental health infrastructure that affords the police various options for the unstable citizens they are asked to assist.
In most larger communities a dearth of mental health services exist resulting in a large number of mentally ill persons being held in custody – sometimes a county house of correction or any one of
16 prisons in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Spotlight team at the Boston Globe has featured the plight of those who are sent to prison with comorbid mental illness and substance abuse. The fact is that criminality and mental health are often difficult to disentangle.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill believe as many as 20 to 40 percent of prison inmates may have severe mental illness and may not be receiving the needed treatment to allow them to rehabilitate. Yet in the absence of the mental health infrastructure needed to provide treatment – including hospital care for those most unstable, few viable options were put forth.
The Boston Globe fails to inform readers that criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive. Drug addicts break into homes to feed the hunger of their addiction. In prototypic fashion, the Globe offers no alternative and no solution aside from casting blame on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Without a doubt the stories they report are heart wrenching and emotionally palpable for the readers. But not all those in custody who are suspected of preexisting mental illness are helplessly suffering without therapy. Most are not. In many cases being incarcerated allows an addict to become clean and sober and begin the first steps of recovery. Those who are most resistant to therapy and fail to attend psychotherapy, anger management, and medication monitoring have a higher risk of violence and substance abuse. This fact must be considered when responsibility for treatment failure is studied.
Those relationships that suppress the normal, effusive, life force are detrimental to health much like a toxin said Sefton in 2013.
With so many incarcerated persons with suspected mental illness change must be initiated by having services available to those on the front lines. The criminal justice system and the department of mental health have an opportunity to work together now that the pendulum once again swings toward a treatment model. The police can be trained to control the scene through intervention and mediation strategies by slowing things down. When charges are brought alternative sentencing models may offer leverage that include mandated treatment in lieu of jail time. Studies show that those who remain in treatment are less violent than those who fail or drop out of treatment, Torrey, et.al., 2008.
Mental health patient often rely on community services and social welfare including housing, disability payments, medical care and more. Access to these services may be tied to participation in treatment including psychotherapy, medication, if prescribed, and substance abuse treatment. Here is Massachusetts M.H. Advocates reject this notion as unfair a response that remains unique across the country.
The interaction of substance abuse and mental illness is complex. Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained. The 12-step programs have great success and are free to anyone willing to attend. Family members may attend Al-Anon or some drug-specific family support group.
Mental health infrastructure is necessary for the system to work. In San Antonio it has taken 15 years to establish a system that works and saves lives.
Torrey, CF et. al. The MacArthur violence risk assessment study revisited: Two views ten years after its initial publication. Psychiatric Services, vol. 59, issue 2, February 2008, pp. 147-152.
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 2, 2017 I grow contemplative with the change of each calendar year and wonder where the time has gone since 2000 when one of our closest friends dressed as the pink millennial elephant and danced on the front yard to the delight of the four boys who were stuck at home with nothing to do. It was a big surprise to us all and was meant to make us laugh and bring joy. I cherish these friends and am fortunate to have so many more. For those of you who regularly read these posts I wish you all a happy new year – one that is safe and prosperous. I expect that most people wish others peace and prosperity on New Years Day.
Intuition and deviance
I know there is a subset of people who may not be who they would have us believe they are. The world has seen unconscionable acts of barbarism in lone wolf terrorists in 2016 that I will not revisit here. Deviance comes in many forms of disguise. Workplace violence is nothing new and continues to be on the radar screen of human resource and security experts. Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, a disgruntled television reporter killed WDBJ colleague Alison Parker and her cameraman as she did her job on live television. He had been escorted off the station property following repeated attempts at bullying the people he worked with in Roanoke, VA in summer 2015. The live twitter posts, videotaping the shooting, and horrific execution of the victims by Flanagan will be a specter for years to come. People may have anticipated this behavior by looking closely at his prior employment patterns and behavior that were highly erratic. Mental health advocates might argue that Flanagan had depression or some other debilitating psychiatric illness that he chose to ignore. In his 23 page manifesto he cited discrimination, harassment and bullying as the reason for his actions.
“Like dozens of mass killers before him, the shooter embodied a deadly mix of resentment, delusion, and thwarted aspiration” according to Sarah Kaplan (Washington Post, August 27, 2015).
Each of us needs to be aware of our environment and the possibility of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in our midst. Do not be surprised by the behavior of wolves – especially those looking to feed their hubristic conceit. Relationship and intimate partner violence takes on special significance in this new year and there are well documented red flags that forewarn offering a glimpse of the wolf lurking below the surface flash and excitement of what is new. Gavin deBecker offers the textbook – The Gift of Fear as an essential reminder for each of us to closely be aware of our inner feeling states such as the sense of fear – when in the presence of those who might do us harm. Understand fear as a prehistoric memory trace genetically programmed into each of us. It allows us to feel a warning as the wolf gets us in his sites. deBecker owns a security firm that provides employee threat assessments and interviews victims to see what they were thinking and feeling before being attacked. Many reported an odd sense of foreboding just before being assaulted or attacked. By listening to and acting on one’s internal sense of fear you may save your own life.
The possibility of home-grown violence erupting in the life of the average American is greater than ever before. As recent events have illustrated there are marginalized people living on all sides of us – some of whom are brooding – blaming. The reasons for homegrown violence: relationship and workplace violence are very complex and beyond the scope of what can be explained in these pages. As a society the identification and containment of those who depravedly evoke fear in others is requisite to social order. The next generation of leaders should find a balance between public safety, treatment and rehabilitation for those living with mental illness and ardent protection from the brooding haters who dress as sheep in order to make us afraid and bite our throats.
Happy New Year and be aware of your surroundings and watch for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
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.
As 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/
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.