So you want to talk about mental illness & police


So you want to talk about mental illness & police

People with untreated mental illness are 16x more likely to be killed during an encounter with the police. 


Police officers are not trained to be social workers or crisis counselors.

A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that officers received an average of 8  hours total dedicated to “Crisis Intervention Training”

Meanwhile, new recruits spend roughly 60 hours learning how to use guns.

Police are trained to respond to all situations with force first; meaning their primary go-to is to force compliance. Someone in the midst of a crisis may not have the awareness or ability to comply leading to unnecessary and deadly consequences. Anywhere from 50-75% of people killed every year in the United States have a mental illness.


Daniel Prude

In March, Daniel Prude was exhibiting signs of a mental health crisis. His brother called an ambulance in the hopes that Mr. Prude would be hospitalized, but he was sent back home after three hours without a diagnosis. Later, when Daniel ran out of the house barely clothed into the Rochester night, his brother, Joe Prude, again called on the authorities for help, but this time it was the police.

Officers arrived and handcuffed Daniel without incident as he sat in the street barely clothed in freezing temperatures. Daniel spit on the street, prompting officers to put a mesh hood over his head. When officers placed the “spit sock” on him, Daniel became agitated and tried to stand up. Officers immediately pinned him to the ground while he pleaded with them that he couldn't breathe. They mocked him as he died.

“I placed a phone call for my brother to get help, not get lynched.” - Joe Prude

Source: Quote via

In America, mental illness is treated as a crime.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40% of adults who experience serious mental illnesses will come into contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.

The vast majority of these individuals are charged with minor misdemeanor and low level felony offenses that are a direct result of their psychiatric illnesses.


Jails and prisons in the U.S. currently hold more people with serious mental illnesses - 365,000 individuals - than hospitals. They remain in jail 4 - 8 times longer than people without mental illnesses charged with the exact same crime, cost 7x more than other inmates in jail, are less likely to make bail and more likely to gain new charges while incarcerated.

After leaving jail, many no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits. A criminal record often makes it difficult for individuals to get a job or obtain housing. Many individuals - especially without access to mental health services and support - wind up homeless, in emergency rooms and often re-arrested. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.


We must create alternatives for mental health crises that do not involve law enforcement.

For example: mobile crisis response units. One of the most promising alternatives to policing mental health crises is a program called Cahoots, a collaboration between local police and a community service called the White Bird Clinic that operates in both Eugene and Springfield, Oregon.

In these cities, police officers aren't dispatched to handle every single 911 call. Instead, about 20% of calls - often those involving the homeless, addicted, intoxicated, or mentally ill - are routed to a separate team of specialists extensively trained in mental health counseling, social work, and crisis deescalation. The Cahoots model can easily be scaled to other locations across the country.


Questions to ask yourself before calling the police:

If you need to respond to the situation:

  • Can I handle this on my own?
  • Is this something I could try to talk-out with the person?

If you need backup:

  • Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone else whom I could call to help me before I call the police?

If you need professional help:

  • Can we use mediation to talk through what's happening or is there an emergency response hotline I could call?
  • If I call the police do I understand how involving the police could impact me and the other person?
  • If the police are present will they make the situation better or worse?