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 July 16, 2017 In last weeks publication I introduced the problem of mental health and co-occurring substance abuse with some ideas about alternative restitution and treatment. These involve greater discretionary awareness among police officers. More importantly options to jail require viable alternatives that will end the revolving door of minor criminality coupled with treatment for the breadth of addiction seen on a daily basis by law enforcement.
Mental and Physical Health Screening
At time of arrest the individual must have some level of mental health assessment if mental illness is suspected or documented. When I was a police officer prior to 2015 we often asked the D.A. to provide a court clinic assessment of the suspect to rule out suicidal ideation or delusional thinking. This must also include a screening for dangerousness especially when a subject is arrested for intimate partner abuse. Next a health history questionnaire should be undertaken to screen for co-occurring illness – both physical and mental. If a diabetic suspect is held without access to his insulin he is at great risk of death from stroke. Similarly, a person arrested for assault who suffers from paranoid ideation is at greater risk of acting violently without access to psychiatric medication. Finally, an alcoholic brought to the jail with a blood alcohol level greater than 250 is at great risk for seizures and cardiac arrhythmias when delirium tremens begin 6-8 hours after his last drink. The risk to personal health in each of the scenarios above must be taken seriously and the obtained data should be factually corroborated. Police departments across the United States are pairing up with private agencies to provide in-house evaluation and follow-up of individuals who fall on the borderline and may not be easily discerned by the officer in the field.
Diversion Safety Plan
Next, the probation and parole department must obtain an accurate legal history prior to consideration for bail. A nationwide screen for warrants and criminal history based on previous addresses is essential. In many places these are being done routinely. In the case of someone being arrested for domestic violence he may have no convictions thus no finding of criminal history. For these individuals the dangerousness assessment may bring forth red flag data needed for greater public safety resulting in protection from abuse orders, mandated psychotherapy, and in some cases, no bail confinement when indicated. Releasing the person arrested for domestic violence without a viable safety plan increases the risk to the victim and her family, as well as the general public – including members of law enforcement.
Bail, Confinement, Mandated Treatment
There is some thinking that higher amounts of bail may lessen the proclivity of some offenders to breach the orders of protection drafted to protect victims and should result in revocation of bail and immediate incarceration when these occur. I have proposed a mandatory DV Abuse Registry that may be accessed by law enforcement to uncover the secret past of men who would control and abuse their intimate partners. This database would also include information on the number of active restraining orders and the expected offender’s response to the “stay away” order. In cases where the victim decides to drop charges there should be a mandatory waiting period of 90 days. During this waiting period the couple may cohabitate but the perpetrator must be attending a weekly program of restorative justice therapy and substance abuse education. Violations of these court ordered services are tantamount to violation of the original protection order (still in place) and victim safety plan and may result in revocation of bail. If the waiting period passes and the perpetrator has met the conditions of his bail than he may undergo an “exit” interview to determine whether or not the protection order / jail diversion plan may be extended.
In many jurisdictions the mentally ill cannot be forced to take medication nor can they be forced into treatment. Adherents to this belief advocate on the behalf of the chronically mentally ill for the right to make these individual choices – treatment or no treatment. Ostensibly advocates seem unconcerned for the public health risks associated with ongoing drug addiction and major mental illness. There needs to be an active system in place to provide guardianship to individuals with repeated failed treatment that mandates treatment for those who cannot remain in a program of sobriety and psychotherapy in lieu of incarceration. In many cases a family member may be appointed temporary guardian for up to 180 days that allows decisions to be made about patient care up to the guardian not the patient himself who may be unable to stay on track.
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
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.
WESTBOROUGH, MA March 21, 2017 When working as a police officer I was asked to take the statements of women who were asking for protection from an abusive spouse or intimate partner. These requests were usually granted by the on-call judge – especially if children were at risk or a history of physical abuse was suspected. But these orders only last a short time – perhaps a weekend. In order to have restraining orders extended the victim is expected to go to the district court and swear testimony that specifies the reasons for an order of protection including threats or actual physical harm, forced sexual contact, pathological jealousy – whatever. Sometimes this happens and protection orders are extended usually for 6 months. During this time the couple is expected to sort out their differences and engage the help of a family therapist, if possible. This rarely happens.
“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton. A psychological autopsy should be undertaken to effectively understand the homicide and in doing so contribute to the literature on domestic violence and DVH according to Sefton who with colleagues published the Psychological Autopsy of a case from Dexter, Maine where a father murdered his children, estranged wife and ultimately himself (Allanach, et al, 2011).
More often than not, the victim fails to appear for this process and the protective order goes away without any consequences. Why? In the time between the initial emergency order and the Monday morning when the victim is expected to substantiate her initial claims she may have been bullied by her spouse and worked over by his family, his friends and whomever he can enlist in his camp to get her to let it go. She is made to believe that she cannot function without her abuser. When children are involved an abusive spouse will usually say that child protective services will take the children for whatever reason he comes up with. He promises to destroy her credit worthiness, she will be penniless, and he threatens to share lies about her on social media pages for all to see. He may also promise to kill her and cut her to pieces to be used as fish bait – as I have been told in a case being investigated by my former agency. But he swears his love for her always.
This happens over and over.
In some cases the order to extend the restraining order results from elevated risk to the victim and recurring threats of violence. In these cases orders of protection go on for months or years at a time. This type of bullying is an example of the often secretive coercion that takes place in DV and intimate partner abuse is flagrant and often goes unreported. It must be considered whenever an initial order is not sustained especially if the victim fails to appear.
In some cases there is more than one order of protection issued to protect one or more intimate partners. This is a red flag and should have bearing on the bail requirements but seldom does. There should be some follow-up with the original complainant by the police department to investigate her reasons for not pursuing the extended order of protection and determine what impact bullying may have played on the victim’s decision. In rare cases permanent orders are granted because of compelling evidence that the victim and her family remains at risk – usually the result of stalking.
In March 2014, I published a blog in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted a permanent restraining order even though the former spouse was living in Utah and was remarried. In 2014 the Boston Globe did a story on the case written by Martin Valencia essentially raising the spector of the abuser in this case and the current impact the court order has on his day to day life in Utah.
Kevin Caruso was unable to get a job as a youth baseball coach because of a continuing order of protection here in Massachusetts that shows up on his CORI report. He could not own a firearm and was sometimes hassled at airports. The SJC ruled that Kevin Caruso must submit “clear and convincing evidence” that he no longer poses a danger to former girlfriend in a case dating back to 2001. The Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts has required that Mr. Caruso provide proof that “he has ‘moved on’ from his history of domestic abuse and retaliation”. It is well-known that male abusers move from one abusive relationship to another. A colleague Dr. Ron Allanach wrote “In the Caruso case, the Court is proactive, sensing the burden is on the offender rather than the victim; thus, the responsibility for proof that Mr. Caruso has “let it go”, poses no danger to the victim and has done the necessary therapy on his own behavior and to figure strategies to change, rests precisely on the shoulders of the offender where the burden should always remain.” The SJC called the frustration felt by Mr. Caruso the “collateral consequence” of the permanent restraining order put in place initially issued as a result of his threats to kill his former girlfriend. Time alone and location has no bearing on whether a permanent order is sustained. No person should live is fear that a former partner is going to appear at her workplace or stand behind her in the line at Starbucks while she thinks about what blend of coffee she might want.
“Substantive decisions about bail or no bail holds will be more reliable by having access to the violent history of domestic violence offenders and the protective orders that have been issued time and time again.” Michael Sefton
Allanach, R. Court is proactive. Personal correspondance. March 2014
Sefton, M. 2014, https://msefton.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/collateral-consequences-stay-away-orders-that-are-forever/ taken January 21, 2017
Valencia, Milton. SJC rules on Utah man’s permanent restraining order. Boston Globe March 11, 2014, taken March 24, 2017
San Antonio, TX – February 25, 2017 Police officers wear many hats these days. I have spent the last few days learning about a specialized police unit in San Antonio Texas with the SAPD. The Mental Health Unit is a small, well-trained group of police officers who have committed themselves to the positive interaction of police officers and citizens with presumed mental illness. These police officers have a unique window into the chaos some families experience and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis (Sefton, 2014). In many cases, the correct response to this dysfunction should include a follow-up visit in the aftermath of the initial call when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold. When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience. It works and I have seen it for myself.
Over a 15 year span the SAPD has established relationships and built a continuum of service whose mission is jail diversion and treatment for those who are afflicted with mental illness and substance abuse. The Restoration Center in downtown San Antonio is the nucleus for this “smart justice” model. It includes a mobile crisis outreach, 48 hour hospitalization, if necessary, a 90-day homeless shelter with job training e.g. resume building and job interview clothing, childcare and apartment units for those who qualify. As subjects move through the continuum they are provided referrals for individual psychotherapy, substance abuse education, Alcoholic’s Anonymous and the range of 12-step recovery programs. And everyone working there buys in.
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. Michael Sefton blog post 2013
I was given the complete tour and introduced to some key players including Ms. Amanda Miller coordinator at the Mobile Outreach program. The experience was enriching and illustrated the range of possibilities of humane care for those most vulnerable and often incompetent to make healthy choices for themselves. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I came away wishing I could have stayed on longer. The project diverts citizens into treatment in lieu of incarceration and also serves as an in-house resource where brother officers can turn when times get tough. And the mental health unit has seen its share of despair and self-destruction on their side of the blue line with sometimes insufferable results.
Police officers’ department-wide are trained in techniques of crisis intervention by the same two officers I was fortunate enough to ride with. For years, too many emotionally troubled citizens wound up among the incarcerated criminal population in state and county jails and did not receive the care they needed. In Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio, with a growing population of over 1.5 million the main jail now has 800 open beds where it was once filled to capacity.
San Antonio and over 22 communities share the services of the Restoration Center in downtown San Antonio
Culpability and Mental Illness
Are those with mental illness culpable for their behavior? Technically they are responsible unless determined to be unable to discern right from wrong based upon their mental incapacity. Does the fact that they suffer with conditions like bipolar depression, schizophrenia, or drug addiction render them not responsible? There is a national trend to view those with active mental illness as “not responsible” for their behavior largely due to the common belief that if the mental illness were being treated than the criminality in which they may be embroiled would plausibly diminish. Whenever something sensational happens like a school shooting or some other senseless criminal act people universally remark “he was sick” or “she must have been out of her mind” to do that. Not so fast say the social scientists where as the true prevalence of diminished capacity is quite rare.
I strongly believe that mental illness does not exempt citizens from responsibility for crimes they commit. I agree that alternative sentencing may be a powerful tool to bring these individuals into treatment. The substantive goal of streamlining encounters between police officers and citizens who suffer with untreated emotional problems belies the mission of these gifted officers and can teach others the role of discretion in mental health encounters. The reason for this is to deescalate potential violence and thereby reduce the incidence mentally disturbed persons who wind up in jail. This speaks to the importance of getting those most in need into treatment and off the streets sometimes by having a judge mandate they enter treatment. When charges are brought forth alternative sentencing models may offer leverage that include mandated treatment in lieu of jail time know as alternative sentencing. Studies show that those who remain in treatment are less violent than those who fail or drop out of treatment, Torrey, et.al., 2008. In Massachusetts where I served as a police officer for 12 years too many myths entangled the process of accessing treatment for the mentally ill. Officers were sometimes unsure of their options when a Q-5 prisoner was brought it and rarely made referrals for mental health care. Q-5 is the nomenclature used when referring to someone with a history of mental health issues – usually suicidal threats. These prisoners were required to be on one to one supervision when held in jail. At least that was the myth at the time I was serving.
Community Policing and Aftermath Intervention
I learned several important things about police officer interaction with citizens having mental illness. It is a complex and time consuming endeavor that requires follow up in the aftermath of a crisis. Police officers build credibility and trust in the process of this community interaction with citizens and those in the treatment continuum like physician Roberto Jimenez, M.D., a psychiatrist who has been there from the beginning in Bexar County. Dr. Jiminez began his career in Boston at the once revered Boston City Hospital where I completed my postdoctoral fellowship. He said to me “we had the national model in Boston….” referring to the system in place for police-mental health interaction in 1980. At the time, his service was utilized in conjunction with the state department of mental health and an active system of neighborhood health centers throughout the city. He referred to himself as the police psychiatrist. By then, the Massachusetts state hospital system had been deconstructed and was no longer in the continuum of care. The chronically ill fell off the treatment radar. Importantly in Massachusetts, this triggered the swing away from hospital-based care to the community health centers who became the front line for those in crisis. At this point the myth of mental illness began its insidious transformation and jail became the containment locale in the absence of the venerable state hospitals. In January 2017, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker expanded number of available beds at the Bridgewater State Hospital for care of those in crisis.
Officers in the SAPD Mental Health Unit undergo specialized training in crisis intervention. Officers Stevens and Smarro teach the 40-hours class to police officers from across the country. All police recruits in the SAPD academy are given this training as part of their early law enforcement education suggesting strong support from the command hierarchy. Importantly, the CIT model teaches officers to return to the scene of their calls to make referrals for care as I observed in February. The follow-up call is key in rebuilding trust and illustrates the commitment in police-mental health care continuum. Just as importantly is the relationship created among police officers and direct service personnel like Dr. Jimenez who share the understanding of what can be done for those most in need.
Ostensibly, building relationships with network psychotherapists, physicians, addiction specialists, court judges, and other support service like Child and Family Services is essential. Officers Stevens and Smarro spent hours on the telephone reaching out to the network of physicians, judges, hospital admission personnel and brother officers all in the service of a single case they picked up one evening while on an overtime patrol shift. Had they not caught the call on that night the complainant family may have flown under the law enforcement radar forever and a 33-year old depressed and delusional male may have become increasingly morose perhaps violent. Instead he was put into treatment with the real eventual possibility of receiving social security disability payments to help he and his family and the treatment he needs to begin life again. Next is a strong conviction in what you are being asked to do. It is necessary and constitutive work that often flies below the radar and out of the headlines. It requires patience, flexibility and the right temperament. And finally, officers need to follow-up on calls and build bridges and trust with those they serve including members on the same side of the thin blue line.
Setting the San Antonio program apart is the routine followup in the aftermath of high intensity calls such as domestic conflict or the run-of-the mill calls to houses where families are struggling with under employment, substance use or any number of social problems. A brief second or third visit may just do the trick to hook in a family or individual otherwise in the margins of society bringing forth growth and human contact.
Perry, D. 2016. Changing the way police respond to mental illness. http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/06/health/police-mental-health-training/
Sefton, M. 2014 Aftermath Intervention: Police first to the threshold. https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/599
Sefton, M. 2017 Police as therapist: the inherent risk of unconditional positive regard. Blog post. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/
Torrey, CF et. al. 2008. 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/