Police interactions with mentally ill people typically happen when everything else has failed. When therapy, counseling and education have been tried; when antipsychotic drugs lose their efficacy or patients stop taking them; when families can no longer manage the care of the patients and relapses occur, somebody calls 911, and police officers respond. It’s a situation with a well-documented risk of violence, reports the Los Angeles Times. More than one-third of the people shot by Los Angeles police officers in 2015 had documented signs of mental illness. And a Washington Post analysis of lethal police shootings in 2016 found that more than one-quarter of victims were mentally ill.
The risk of violence also exists if the police are not called, in the form of injury to family members or caregivers who are attempting to manage a mental health crisis on their own. Officers responding to a mental health call must balance criminal law, patient rights, patient safety, their own safety, the safety of the patient’s family members. Police aren’t always the best people for the job, said Jim Smith, Monterey Park, Ca., police chief and chairman of an L.A. County task force on mental illness and homelessness. Smith says there’s been a recent shift in the way police departments in Southern California police the mentally ill. Governments have invested heavily in emergency mental health resources. Five mental health urgent care centers have been established across the county, with a sixth one coming. A dedicated psychiatric emergency response team now gives family members who are afraid to call police a number other than 911. And 39 teams across the county staffed with a police officer and a mental health professional act as “second responders” for cases involving mentally ill people.