Interacting with the police
Mental Health and Support, Part 5
If a police officer is interacting with someone they believe to have schizophrenia, autism, dementia, or numerous other illnesses and disorders, there are special considerations for them to keep in mind.
An otherwise calm person with autism may react violently to being touched after not responding verbally to an officer’s questions.
A person with untreated schizophrenia may have difficulty focusing on the conversation and respond with rambling and difficult-to-understand answers.
Someone with unaddressed depression may be intent on self-harm and lash out at others who try to interfere.
These are just a few of the ways that a mental health disorder can complicate an interaction with police officers.
Despite the chaos it can sometimes cause, being mentally ill is not a crime. However, sometimes those who are mentally ill get treated harshly by those who don’t recognize their mental illness or mistake it for drug abuse or simply bad behavior.
Over the last decade, local police have been working to train themselves on how to better handle the people they interact with who may have a mental illness.
Lt. Nick Roberts works with the Houghton Police Department. He said larger police departments will have specialized social workers working within them but HPD is too small for that kind of specialization. He said that when they have the chance, they do arrange to have the appropriate social worker in the car from CCMH, Dial Help, or elsewhere. They already communicate and work together almost every day with those workers. But when an emergency call comes into 911, time is of the essence and they don’t usually have the opportunity to connect.
“If we have time, great!” Lt. Roberts said. “I’m more than happy to have a social worker come and assist us. They’re just not on our payroll sitting in the seat next to me.”
Additionally, in a bad situation, a social worker in the car could be one more person’s safety an officer has to consider before acting. One reason their universal presence isn’t desired. There are also many calls officers respond to where the social worker is not necessary, so their time would be wasted by constantly riding along.
Lt. Roberts thinks officers are better trained than many people think. He said a lot of the training and improvements that people ask about are already underway, including training on how to better handle situations where a mental illness is involved.
“It’s called Managing Mental Health Crisis training,” Lt. Roberts said.
Normally an in-person and hands-on class, during the COVID-19 pandemic it has been offered virtually using video conferencing. Lt. Roberts said that actually benefits officers in rural and remote areas like the Upper Peninsula, as it gives them access to distant training that isn’t always affordable for smaller departments because of travel and staffing.
“I feel we’ve come a long way with that training,” Lt. Roberts said.
Officers in the training are not taught to spot and diagnose a mental illness, but they do learn telltale signs of different ailments and disorders. They’re also taught how best to interact with those in the midst of a mental health crisis in order to get a more positive outcome.
He said a big part of the training is drilling officers to remain calm and consider their word choice, mannerisms, and body language.
“They [a person of interest] will watch what you’re doing,” Lt. Roberts said. “If I look like I don’t care, they’ll key into that.”
Lt. Roberts is now a certified trainer in the MMHC curriculum and regularly offers the training to other area departments. He teaches the two-day course alongside a social worker.
“We do our best to get trained and educated,” Lt. Roberts said.
Unfortunately, the method isn’t perfect, and there are shortcomings and limitations that lead to bad outcomes. The first limitation is, of course, getting the training to the officers, which takes time and funding that isn’t always available.
Beyond that, officers still have a primary duty to react to unsafe situations. If a person is armed, particularly with a firearm, Lt. Roberts said they have to treat it primarily as an armed-person situation before they can address any mental illness issues in play. This means securing the area and ensuring officers do everything possible to disarm the person before they can hurt themselves or anyone else.
“We deal with a lot of people who can be suicidal,” Lt. Roberts said.
Roberts said that maintaining a calm attitude and talking through the situation has led to several good outcomes he’s not sure would have been possible otherwise.
Matt and Nola Olson have guardianship of their adult daughter and care for her in their home. She’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and is unable to live independently.
“Even though we’re [her] guardian, we don’t have the legal right to restrain her,” Matt said.
So when her diagnosis and medication were still being established several years ago and she had violent episodes, they had to call the police to restrain their daughter and protect themselves.
Matt recalled one time when their daughter was just 14 or 15 years old, they had to call the police because she was wielding a knife and making threats.
“They are being trained to go about it differently,” Matt said. “But at first it was just like ‘Oh, bad things happen, tackle, handcuff,’ you know, just — it was horrible.”
Since they live in a rural area, the Olsons usually interacted with the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department.
It’s been years since the Olsons’ last experience with the sheriff’s department. Matt said they “thankfully” haven’t yet had an experience with the “new and improved” sheriff’s deputies since they’ve received Managing Mental Health Crisis Training.
They said the one time they dealt with the city of Houghton’s police department was a much different, more sedate, and preferable experience.
“I just want people to realize that we’re doing our best,” Lt. Roberts said. “And don’t be afraid to talk to us.”