What can we expect of police in the face of deficient mental health systems? Qualitative insights from Chicago police officers [2020]

Accessible summary

What is known on the subject?
People with serious mental illnesses are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Interventions such as Crisis Intervention Teams and Co‐responder Teams may improve police officers’ ability to provide effective response.
There is still a gap in our knowledge of the nature of the situations officers are responding to and their perceptions of what is needed for effective response.
What this paper adds to existing knowledge?
This paper provides insight into officer perceptions and experiences of the mental health‐related calls they respond to involving youth, adults and families.
Officers often refer to people in crisis as having “gone off meds” but also recognize more complex factors at the individual level (e.g., co‐occurring issues), family level (challenges of caring for a loved one with mental illness) and community level (deficiencies in health and social resources to address long‐term unmet needs).
Deficiencies in the resources needed to address the unmet needs of people and their families frustrate officers’ desires to make a difference and effect long‐term outcomes.

What are the implications for practice?
Findings underscore the need for cities and communities to develop alternatives to emergency departments which, in the long term, may provide the best hope for reducing the reliance on police as mental health interventionists. Formal collaborations between the law enforcement community and the mental health nursing community could be focused towards this end.
Findings provoke the larger question of what should “count” as good police work in the face of deficient community health systems. Practitioners should consider the distinction between police effectiveness and “whole system” effectiveness. Police officers could be held to account for “principled encounters” that are resolved in ways that reduce immediate harm, avoid stigma and advance procedural justice, but the full impact of their effects is contingent on the capacity of the wider system to do its job.
Mental health nurses are well positioned to assist with officer training and provide support to officers responding to mental health‐related situations.

4.1 Introduction
Data on fatal outcomes of police encounters, combined with evidence on the criminalization of people with mental illnesses, reveal a grave need to improve outcomes for individuals with mental illnesses who come into contact with police. Current efforts are hampered by a lack of in‐depth knowledge about the nature of nature and context of these encounters.

4.2 Aim/Question
Building on previous findings from a larger study on the nature and outcomes of mental health‐related encounters with police in Chicago, this paper examines officer perspectives on the unmet needs of individuals and their families and the ways in which the mental health and social system environment constrain officers’ abilities to be responsive to them.

4.3 Methods
Findings are drawn from qualitative data produced through 36 “ride‐alongs” with police officers. Field researchers conducted open‐ended observations of police work during routine shifts and carried out interviews with officers—according to a ride‐along question guide—during periods of inactivity or between calls for service to ask about experiences of mental health‐related calls. Field notes describing their observations and ride‐along interviews were analysed inductively using a combination of open and focused coding.

4.4 Results
Officers responded to a variety of mental health‐related calls revealing complex, unmet needs at individual and family levels. A common theme related to officers’ perceptions that “going off meds,” combined with other situational factors, resulted in police being involved in behavioural health situations. The data also revealed broader aspects of the health and social system that, in officers’ minds, constrain their ability to effect positive outcomes for people and their families, especially in the long term.

4.5 Discussion
Findings beg the larger question of what it is we, as a society, should expect of police in the handling of mental health‐related calls, given their concerns with the wider health and social service system that they experience as deficient. At the same time, the view that “going off meds” is a common trigger of mental health‐related events should be interpreted with care, as it may signal or perhaps serve as a shorthand for more complex health and social needs that could be obscured by a pharmacological or medicalized perspective on mental illness. This is an important area of future inquiry for research at the intersection of policing and mental health nursing.

4.6 Implications for practice
The contribution of police to the wellness and recovery of people and their families is constrained by the ability of the community health and social service system to do its job. A wave of new initiatives designed to enhance the interface between police and the medical community holds out hope for alleviating officers’ concerns about whether they can work in tandem with the rest of the system to make a difference. For now, we suggest that what we can expect of police is to implement “principled encounters” that ensure public safety while achieving harm reduction, self‐determination and the reduction of stigma. Mental health nurses are well positioned to assist with officer training and provide support to officers responding to mental health‐related situations. However, the fields of policing and nursing practice may not yet fully understand the individual, family and community dynamics driving calls for police service. The notion of “gone off meds” should be interrogated as a potential trope that obscures a whole‐of‐person approach and whole‐system approach to mental health crisis response and care.

Jennifer D. Wood PhD, Amy C. Watson PhD, Christine Barber MSW
Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 23 September 2020