Police and the Mentally Ill: From Last Resort to First Resort?

untitledJim Chu, Vancouver chief of police and president of the Canadian association of police chiefs, recently told a unique gathering of mental health experts and law enforcement leaders that policing the mentally ill is now a top concern for police. He said, “The police are becoming the mental health agency of first resort.”

For me it is yet another reason why we need smart, well-trained, innovative police officers and leaders who deeply believe in the dignity and worth of all people.

Chief Constable Chu is talking about a situation that is not unique to Canada. It is something that has perplexed American policing since our national efforts to deinstitutionalize many of our nation’s mentally ill – many of whom needed not to be imprisoned, but better managed. And there’s the rub…

On Tuesday (March 25, 2104), Laura Kane wrote about this conference at theStar.com. She noted the following: Last year in Vancouver, about 21 per cent of police calls involved mental illness. From that about 2,700 people were apprehended under the Canadian Mental Health Act. There were no deaths at the hands of police.

In Kane’s article, Chu noted what many police leaders are experiencing on this side of the border as well, “I used to say that the police were the mental health response agency of last resort. [Now I say] the police are increasingly becoming the mental health response agency of first resort.”

Chief Constable Jim Chu, Vancouver
Chief Constable Jim Chu, Vancouver

The conference was put together shortly after an inquest into the shooting deaths of three mentally ill people in Toronto. This is not unusual. I sense there is growing public outrage in both of our countries over high-profile police shootings of addicted and/or mentally ill persons.

The question most always is this: “Couldn’t the police have done something other than take the person’s life as a solution to the problem?”

In the past, I have posted a number of blogs on this matter (See below). In them, I have called for police to re-think the methods they use in these situations; to consider ways other than deadly force.

I still feel that way. There are other methods that creative and innovative police should be working on, testing, training and then implementing as policy and practice. It’s seeking to continuously improve all that we do — especially with regard to the use of deadly force.

This week’s conference is brought together those in Canada who have the “lived experience” of working with the mentally ill – and that means police, therapists, addiction counselors, and case-workers who are on the front line.  The goal is to share with others throughout the criminal justice and mental health treatment systems what they have learned (or are learning) and then act on it.

“Crisis situations in the field are very difficult to handle,’ Chu said, “and we’re trying to do our best to prevent that crisis call from happening in the first place. He went on to say his department has “created special teams of officers and health professionals that provide outreach services to the mentally ill.”

In Vancouver they are called “Assertive Community Treatment” teams. They don’t just react to crises; they try to prevent them before they occur. “Three teams serve a total of 191 at-risk clients,” Chu remarked, “checking in on them regularly and ensuring they get the help they need. The teams have successfully lowered the number of encounters with police and hospital visits made by the clients they serve… One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as a police chief is tell a father I’m sorry we shot your son.”

[To see the entire article CLICK HERE.]

Another example in right thinking is the work that Boise, Ida. police chief Mike Masterson is doing. Mike and I worked together years ago and then Boise (population 212,000) sought him out to be their chief. Mike is the kind of police leader we need today — smart, well-trained, innovative and believes in the dignity and worth of all people. You can read more about Mike’s work with the mentally ill in his city which averages 20 calls each day regarding persons experiencing a mental crisis. He has urged lawmakers in his state to fund mental health professionals who can treat people early instead of waiting for them to reach a crisis. [See more HERE.]

Similarly, another colleague of mine, Chief Noble Wray, recently retired. Upon his retirement, the past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Frank Ryan, opined that Noble was a “great gift to people with mental illness and their families. [He] elevated the city’s police force to a law enforcement level that only a few cities in the nation have reached, showing understanding and compassion for citizens struggling with mental health issues.” Noble kept the Madison idea alive during his tenure encouraging and training officers to avoid violent confrontations with mentally ill persons and, instead, work to resolve their problems.

What we found in Madison years ago was that the most effective response was collaboration and the development of a strong relationship between police on the street and mental health professionals. Cities often drop this approach in favor of letting the problem drift. Politicians save money on the front end and then pay it back exponentially in city dollars as a result of seven figure liability judgments. Hardly sound thinking.

The following ImprovingPolice posts have addressed one or more aspects of this problem:

1. A Problem in Madison (Jan. 21, 2013)

2. Making Choices: The Moral Aspects of Policing (Jan. 15, 2013)

3. A Police Shooting: What Would You Do? (Jan. 8, 2013)

4. Just Because We Can, Should We? (Dec. 14, 2012)

5. Police Compassion in Real Time (Nov. 15, 2012)

6. Should Cops Be Compassionate? Part II (Nov. 6, 2013)

7. Should Cops Be Compassionate? Part I (Oct. 11, 2012)

8. Let’s Be Creative on the Use of Force (Sept. 28, 2012)

9. Stepping Back: Reflecting on a Police Shooting (Feb, 5, 2013)

10. Swat: Is There a Problem Here? (Mar. 26, 2014)




  1. Mr. Couper,

    I couldn’t agree more with you that mental illness is something that needs to be taken seriously in the criminal justice system. Officers are often called to more disturbances that involve mentally ill individuals each year. I find it very interesting that you not only looked at the views of the police in America on mental illness but the views of the Canadian police as well. In an article in the British Medical Journal written by Adrian O’Dowd (2009), the views of the British pertaining to mental illness are expressed. The British proposed a plan to offer criminal offenders the same amount of healthcare that is offered to ordinary citizens. They also proposed a plan to initiate services from the court system to specifically help criminal offenders. The British Governments proposed plans are scheduled to take around 5 years. I wonder if America and Canada implemented programs like the British if the number of mentally ill reoffenders would decrease?

    Many American studies over the years have found that mental health problems vary by state. Steadman, Monahan, Hartstone, Davis, and Robbins (1982) found that, “Not only do states generally know little about how many mentally disordered offenders they are called upon to house and treat, they typically have no ongoing capacity to distinguish among these people on any relevant dimension.” Although you touch on many subjects related to mental illness and the police, one subject that you don’t touch on is mental illness in young criminal offenders. A lot of research shows that youth who enter the juvenile justice system often have a mental illness that can be diagnosed (Cocozza & Skowyra, 2000). In order to help prevent young juvenile offenders with a mental illness from becoming career criminals, the criminal justice system has to do something; programs that actually have decent funding need to be enacted to help mentally ill criminal youth turn their lives around and deal with their mental illnesses. If you would like to know more information on the sources that I used in this post just let me know and I will gladly upload them.


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