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The Most Important Tool for Police Officers Responding to a Person With Mental Illness

March 18, 2015
A security officer at his post.
Any officer could tell you hundreds of stories of interactions they've had with members of their community where an assertive tone helped them gain control over an unruly situation. Most cases are resolved peacefully.
But there are times when an assertive tone can actually hurt the situation. For instance, when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, an assertive tone can actually cause that person's behavior to escalate.

And in rare, tragic cases, police see the escalating behavior as a threat and are forced to make a split-second decision on whether or not to use force to mitigate that threat.
Last year, Dallas police were called to a home where 39-year-old Jason Harrison was experiencing a mental breakdown. According to Harrison's mother, Shirley, her son was off his medication for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and had been acting aggressively and making threats. 
Shirley had phoned 911 for help, but when the officers arrived, within seconds, the situation quickly escalated.
CPI's Executive Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Gugala was interviewed by Vice Magazine New York on what strategies police might consider when responding to a person with a mental health crisis.
"If you try to treat someone [with mental illness] in the same way you treat an average person, that could cause problems and communication issues," Gugala is quoted in the article. 
Because police have one of the toughest jobs out there, we owe it to them to provide them with the tools they need to help ensure that the safety of everyone involved is paramount.

So what are these tools an officer needs? Awareness of what mental illness looks like in crisis situations, and understanding for the individual in crisis. 

To get there, this takes training in how to identify the behaviors they might see from an individual in a mental health crisis. It also takes training in de-escalation strategies to help prevent the situation from becoming violent or even fatal.

For every "Dallas" or "Ferguson" out there, there are thousands of interactions that happen every day that are resolved peacefully. Although we often only see stories in the media about the interactions that have ended in tragedy, there are many, many outstanding officers out there who strive to make a difference.

To learn how verbal de-escalation training resulted in fewer injuries, reduced litigation, and less paperwork for officers in a Minnesota sheriff’s office, listen to Episode 66 of Unrestrained, a CPI podcast series.

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