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.

Behavior regulation and fire: an overlooked sign of inner conflict

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 1, 2017 Playing with fire can be the most dangerous of all childhood behavior and a sinister expression of rage among adults with severe psychopathology. It is often overlooked as an expression of emotional problems among persons of interest with whom the police encounter. Early in my career at Boston City Hospital I was a member of the juvenile arson program that evaluated children who were referred with fire setting as the primary sign of distress.  I worked with Inspector Al Jones of the Boston Fire Department and Dr. Rita Dudley at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology (CMTP) at BCH.  Rita was instrumental in growing the program into a regional center for the assessment of juvenile arson.  Inspector Al Jones of the Boston Fire Department was our liaison with front line investigators.  It was a fast paced program that got kids in for assessment and treatment quickly because we knew that some of the children we were seeing were at high risk of repeated fire setting and some were merely curious with their match play.

During my fellowship year I evaluated 49 children who were sent to us by fire departments in the Boston area.  I worked with Dr. David K. Wilcox, a Boston area practitioner and Dr. Robert Stadolnik, then at Westwood Child and Family Services, as key colleagues in my development and expertise in this area of psychology.  Bob published Drawn to Flame, a book about childhood firesetting in 2000.  The key for those of us involved in the program was to identify individuals who were most at risk of repeated fire setting and determine the underlying cause of their immense emotional turmoil.

The expression of underlying anger using fire is a malevolent sign conflict and detachment – sometimes psychosis and delusional thinking.  It represents inner conflict and emotional turmoil as I mention in a post published in 2013. Although quite rare, fire as a symbolic expression of delusions is documented. More commonly though, fire is a signal of emotional dysfunction in the life and family of a child or adult who is suspected of arson.  To what extent it represents underlying trauma requires a comprehensive psychological assessment and careful history. In the most dangerous cases, hospital care is required for the safety of the child or adult with firesetting behavior.  In the adult, arson for hire or an insurance scam represents a large proportion of those arrested for fire-related behavior.

Fire as an expressive behavior

Fire is instrumental in the expression of culture, ritual and is symbolic of great emotion and excitement. Its use at public events, celebrations and parties is commonplace.  People enjoy the dramatic sensory experience associated with seeing and feeling fire.  At what point is it a sign of conflict or burgeoning emotion? The expression of anger may be something as subtle as burning one’s own clothing in a small ceremonial fire in the living room fireplace.  Who would do that you might ask and why?  One example is a person who has lost a large amount of weight may exemplify the accomplishment by burning the larger clothes.  It is a symbolic way of saying goodbye to the old habits that may have caused the weight gain. Ok – that is plausible.  Another person might burn clothing as a way of undoing internalized feelings of shame and self-hatred engendered by early childhood trauma.  Also a plausible explanation of hidden psychopathology that often has deadly results. Some firesetting may represent a preoccupation with flame as an expression of fear and dread coming from exposure to violence within a dysfunctional home. This is a larger subset of persons than one might think and represents a sign of growing emotional lability.

The question for psychologists and police officers is how to identify persons of interest with the emotional coping deficits that place them at risk for using fire as an expression of their feelings and conflict. “The underpinnings of violence are often present in some form or another and may be represented by a marginalized demeanor and extremist views” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychological Services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.

“The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior” according to Michael Sefton in a 2013 blog post

The treatment model involves individual and group therapy to assit patients in the identification of inner emotions and feeling states.  I have worked with pediatric patients whose behavior is totally unregulated and unpredictable and yet when you ask them what they were feeling at the time of the fire they cannot tell you. Fire may result in a discharge of emotion like lightning. In the same way some persons are physically abusive – others set fires to release their strong emotions. The current reality suggests that errant use of fire material represents one of the most lethal expressions of underlying emotional turmoil and unbridled conflict in people. There are few programs equipped to understand and treat people with these behaviors and firesetting is often an exclusionary behavior  for entry into treatment programs everywhere.


Sefton, M. Juvenile Firesetting, blog post:  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/juvenile-firesetting/,  taken January 14,2017

Police as therapist: the inherent risk of unconditional positive regard 

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

Dr. Michael Sefton brought out myths of mental illness while serving as a police officer retiring in 2015

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.

ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING

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.

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/

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.

What are immediate signs?

“…there are cases in the literature that identify a pattern of behavior that is observable in the days, months or years preceding these monstrous events that may signal a need for high risk containment”

Taken from Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake in 2011 presented to Governor’s DV Abuse Board

Allanach et al. 2011

WESTBOROUGH, MA October 31, 2016 People often see signs of imminent violence in the days weeks or months in the lead up to DVH.  As a society, these signs must evoke action on behalf of potential victims. The roadmap to understand domestic violence requires clarity and courage that should not be placed solely in the hand’s of victims.

It is frequent that the abuser tips his hand as to what his intentions might be.  In the Lake homicide-suicide in 2011 in Dexter, Maine, Steven Lake hinted to his son that “the cost of a divorce is 25 cents – the price of one bullet.” Lake also verbalized that when he “did it – it would be on CNN.”

What are “red flags” in intimate partner violence?

Law enforcement is regularly on the front line in making decisions about the likelihood of imminent violence. In the case of domestic violence police need to key in on specific behaviors that can signal elevated levels of risk to victims and children. Why?  Because over half of all cases of domestic are not reported to police.  As a result, front line responders need to be aware of both tangible and less obvious indicators of risk know as red flags.  Red flags may be predictive of future violence.  “As the totality of these red flags come into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk – as we are mandated to do in cases of child and elder abuse” (Sefton, 2011).

Past behavior is thought to be the best predictor of future behavior.  The history of a prior order of protection should signal to police the proclivity for violence.  This information is readily available to the street officer via the mobile data terminal seated next to him in his cruiser.  In Massachusetts, police are privy to prior protection orders and whether or not a suspect ever violated those orders.  Special care for victims may be needed in cases where suspects repeatedly violate DV “stay away” orders.  Arguably these facts should bear greater weight when determining bail conditions than criminal record alone for those arrested for intimate partner abuse.  Unfortunately, in most cases, they are not.

Victim safety should be the first consideration in any treatment plan involving spousal abuse.  Police officers have significant latitude when making decisions about disposing of cases domestic abuse.  Recommendations should include a review of the frequency, severity, and potential risk factors in the case, and consider the need for a victim safety plan.  Police may be the first in a line of many to recommend the safety plan for a battered and abused family member.  They regularly make decisions about risk based on what they see at the scene.  Red flags sometimes jump out when they interview the parties involved e.g. bruises, scratches, burn marks.  All too often decisions about “risk” are based upon what transpired prior to arrival rather than in consideration of what might happen once officers leave.  Risk factors must be included into police officer discretion.

In respect to victims of domestic violence, it is vital that red flags and risk factors become the first of its kind “road map” to reduce harm to families who find themselves in the cross hairs and assure that victims and their safety plans are not abandoned or ignored.

  1. Sefton, M (2011) Risk Assessment. Retrieved January 27, 2012. http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com