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Back to Archives | Back to January 2008 Contents 

President's Message

Law Enforcement Response to the Mentally Ill

By Ronald C. Ruecker, Director of Public Safety, City of Sherwood, Oregon

Ronald Ruecker
Ronald C. Ruecker,
Director of Public Safety,
City of Sherwood, Oregon

s law enforcement officers, our duties require us to interact daily with a wide variety of individuals. Some are citizens seeking our assistance; others are criminals we want to apprehend; still others are individuals who are engaged in behavior that might not be illegal but is troublesome or potentially harmful to themselves or others. How we as a profession respond to each of these situations is critical to our success in ensuring the safety of our communities and the citizens we serve.

This is never truer than when law enforcement officers interact with people, especially children, who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Because responding officers have a limited perspective on an individual’s health status, they are often placed in situations that can lead to terrible tragedy.

For example, in the past 18 months alone, there have been at least three tragic incidents involving youth experiencing a mental health crisis in my home state of Oregon. In one case, the parents of a distraught and suicidal teenager called police officers, fearing for their own safety and the safety of their son, who was brandishing a knife and threatening to harm himself and members of his family. Afraid that the teenager would run into his home and hurt his family, police officers shot the teenager, who later succumbed to his injuries.

Tragedies such as this happen all too often, tearing families and communities apart. This is why I have made improving law enforcement’s response to those who have a mental illness one of the priorities of my term as IACP president.

A number of factors contribute to these unfortunate situations—most notably, a lack of understanding of mental health issues on the part of the responding officer and limited resources that prevent law enforcement agencies from establishing effective programs for dealing with the mentally ill. As one step in addressing this important issue, the IACP is collaborating with the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (FFCMH). I believe that this collaboration will lead to mutual understanding and concrete solutions to keep our youth and our communities safe.

The IACP’s work with the FFCMH began in September 2007 with an enlightening and successful roundtable discussion about the challenges that law enforcement officers face when they are called to respond to an incident involving children or youth experiencing a mental health crisis. I was encouraged to find that there is much that we in the law enforcement community can do. Improving communication between law enforcement officers and children and youth facing mental challenges is a critical first step.

To do this, the IACP will work to develop model policies that support positive police interventions with children and youth with mental health issues. Furthermore, we also plan to develop model “memoranda of understanding” to support sharing information and resources between mental health service providers and the law enforcement community. The IACP will promote several strategies for cross-cultural experiences such as ride-along programs, citizen police academies, and family organization–sponsored picnics for first responders.

The IACP’s collaboration with the FFCMH serves as an example of how to establish relationships in communities across the United States. However, these collaborations must be developed and nurtured at the local level. To assist those on the local level, the IACP, working with the FFCMH, is committed to creating a guide for local communities about developing strategic relationships among families, youth, and law enforcement. This guide is intended to provide localities with practical information for forming successful collaborations in their community among families, youth, police, truant officers, sheriffs, and school resource officers that will ultimately result in safer, less traumatic encounters between children and youth in mental health crises and law enforcement officers.

But there is more that we can do. Law enforcement agencies can adapt existing training programs related to crisis de-escalation for children and youth and promote their use. Agencies in Idaho and Indiana have developed user-friendly tools such as pocket guides for law enforcement officers that can be tailored to fit other jurisdictions. In addition, law enforcement officers can reach out to families and youth and educate them about what police can and cannot do to help by hosting forums. This way, families and youth can learn local policies, such as those that may require police officers to make arrests if certain crimes have been committed.

These are just a few of the actions that the law enforcement profession can take to help make sure that our response to those with mental illness is both appropriate and effective. I believe it is imperative that we as a profession make a concerted effort to provide our officers with the resources, the tools, and the knowledge necessary to ensure that they can prevent needless tragedies when dealing with the mentally ill. This will not be an easy task, and it will not be accomplished overnight, but our responsibilities to communities and our duty demand that we act. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 1, January 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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