Police as Mental Health Workers

Once upon a time, our nation housed mentally ill people in large numbers — many of whom were not a danger to themselves of other people. The solution was to de-institutionalize many of them and put in place community mental health treatment centers. At the time, it was met with applause from many.

In the early 70s it worked pretty well, police partnered with the mental health workers, the courts were supervising those former inmates who were not taking their meds, and outreach workers were available to help with their employment and housings issues.

And then it stopped — funding diminished and all but stopped.

The jails became the residence of many who suffered from a mental illness (some call our jails our “new asylums*) and police became their outreach workers to deal with homelessness, addictions, panhandling and petty street crime.

Click HERE for a history of how we got to where we find ourselves today.

While police chiefs and sheriffs have tried to find mental health services for those in their jails, their officers continue to run across and get called to incidents involving the mentally ill.

I don’t know if we will ever fix this problem, but we do owe it to our nation’s police officers to make sure they have the training and equipment to properly respond to persons in a mental health crisis.

Instead of training a special unit or special officers with these skills, the fact of the matter today is that ALL police need to be competent in responding to these crises without having to resort to using deadly force because they felt threatened by persons exhibiting behaviors they considered abnormal and even dangerous.


  1. I could not agree more. De-institutionalizing mentally ill patients in the 1970’s and early ’80’s was a great move forward. We did so with the promise of providing community support for these patients. What support materialized slowly eroded over the past 40 years putting many with mental health challenges in difficult, dangerous, scary situations. As a field supervisor for the Wis. Department of Corrections, finding housing, treatment, medication, employment was a daunting task for men and women returning home. I can vividly remember picking up one man from a doorway on state street. He was terrified, delusional, begging to be returned to prison. He was homeless and had done nothing wrong. The medication he was released with had run out and he could not get into a clinical to receive help in the first weeks of his release. The number of men and women suffering from mental illness in prison is tragic. The withdrawal of support for community programming is criminal.


  2. All I can say is that when I’ve been in a real crisis, the police have always been extremely understanding. But”care in the community’ is bullshit and a cop out (no pun intended).


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