Public Comment

ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Changing the Role of Police in Mental Health Scenarios

Jack Bragen
Saturday July 18, 2020 - 04:38:00 PM

Police are probably having it a bit rough of late--there are a lot of people with whom police are unpopular. And this is because a few bad officers have committed horrendous, racist crimes, sparking public outrage. There is something intrinsically wrong with the concept of society needing to punish people through arresting people, especially when this leads to police beating citizens, harming them, and sometimes murdering people. This is not strictly happening to black people. Yet African American people are often assumed by police and others to be guilty of something merely through their skin color.

Much of the time, police perform essential roles in society. Most are very brave men and women and many of them are good people. We shouldn't hate all of law enforcement based on the behaviors of a few.

As a mentally ill white man with a history of some encounters with police, my feelings are mixed. I believe many police and sheriffs are callous and cruel toward people who do not deserve that treatment. I would like to see major changes in how police are hired, trained, and supervised.

Defunding police and eliminating them entirely would be a mistake. There are individuals in U.S. society, irrespective of race, who can and will take advantage of such a situation and will commit crimes because they feel they can get away with it, if there is no consequence of being punished. I hate to say it, but the repercussion of being jailed is the only thing that will work to restrain some criminals who would otherwise victimize vulnerable people.

On the other hand, in the circumstance of helping mentally ill people get help, the role of police needs to be given a major overhaul.

Let's not forget that a great number of persons with mental illness are inappropriately jailed. To put a vulnerable, ill person in that environment is an indescribably cruel action. You wouldn't incarcerate someone for having cancer or arthritis. Mental illnesses are biological conditions that happen to impact behavior. Any government entity, whether police or other, needs to be able to recognize whether the person they believe is guilty of something is actually symptomatic of a biologically produced mental illness.

Far too often, police, because they feel it is their job, ship mentally ill people into jail. And this is done in a heinous and cruel manner. It leaves the mentally ill person, at that point, a victim of the criminal justice system, and emotionally scarred for life.

Aside from that, many police seem to think their job is about punishment. And that seems to include punishing black people for being black. It also includes punishing mentally ill people for minor offenses that took place because the mentally ill person was confused, delusional, and/or disoriented.

Since police are at least partly about punishment, and are certainly equipped for that, with firearms, tasers, and batons, maybe giving them a role in mental health is a misappropriation. This problem may stem from those in the general public being afraid of mentally ill people.

Some mentally ill people become violent. Yet, one hopes this doesn't end in an officer shooting a mentally ill person to death. The overall predicament we face is not simple, and it should not be perceived in an oversimplified way.

In Children's Protective Services in California, a social worker has the power to protect children and he or she often has police backup. Maybe this is the best way to handle 5150's and other enforcement where mentally ill people are involved. You could have mental health workers present in all dealings between police and mentally ill, and the worker could supervise police.

When medicated and receiving treatment, mentally ill people like myself are responsible for how we behave, and we are accountable. However, if I foolishly went off medication, at some point I would become unable to properly assess reality. At such a point, while I might be ethically responsible for anything done while off medication, I would not be fully competent, and should not be dealt with as such. Again, things should not be oversimplified.

Unfortunately, many people and many things in today's world are seen in an oversimplified manner. Yet, the method by which we decide how and where to use police in dealing with mental illness should be reasoned in the complex and nuanced manner it needs.