The information provided above is only a generalized description of police problems associated with people with mental illness. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of people with mental illness, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later.
It is important to gather information about the quantity and types of incidents involving people with mental illness. A jurisdiction may find that one or two particular types of incidents constitute a large part of its problem, providing a focus for analysis and response. This information may be difficult to obtain, however, because many police agencies’ call classification systems do not include a code for “person with mental illness,” “mental health emergency,” or “emotionally disturbed person.”
If the police department’s communications system does not provide reliable data, it may be necessary to do a special study in which officers and dispatchers record this type of information for some months to facilitate problem analysis. Another option is to backtrack from known indicators of incidents involving people with mental illness. For example, if one call at an address is found to involve a victim with mental illness or a false complaint reported by someone with mental illness, all previous calls at that address could be analyzed to check for a hidden hot spot. Similarly, all previous calls involving the particular person (victim or complainant) could be extracted from the department’s computer system to determine if the individual might be an unrecognized repeat victim or repeat false complainant.
You should not overlook other data sources. Hospitals (general and/or psychiatric), ambulance services, and community-based mental health agencies might have useful data on commitments, referrals, and transports. In addition, academic institutions and mental health advocates might have conducted studies of the mental health situation in your jurisdiction, or they might be willing to partner with the police agency in conducting such studies.
It is important to identify institutions, organizations, and individuals in the community who play significant official or unofficial roles in the mental health system. Since most police officers are not intimately familiar with all the players in the mental health system, these stakeholders and potential guardians may not be well known or obvious. Because these entities can contribute expertise, authority, and resources, though, it is very beneficial to identify them and, if possible, engage them as participants in collaborative problem-solving.
Identifying victims is important because certain categories of people, or even some specific individuals, may be more heavily victimized than others, suggesting avenues for problem-solving activity. Victims in situations involving people with mental illness might include specific community members, mental health workers, family members, or the mentally ill themselves. When any of these people become crime victims, the police may be notified, although of course many crimes also go unreported. Unfortunately, even when reported, such crimes may not be flagged or marked as involving a person with mental illness. This can make it difficult to identify both one-time and repeat victims.
It is important to look for people who cause a disproportionate share of the problem. People with mental illness may be offenders, or others may commit offenses against them. As mentioned above, however, it can be difficult to identify cases involving people with mental illness from police data, thus making it challenging to identify offenders and repeat offenders associated with such cases.
The locations and times of incidents and crimes involving people with mental illness may be important to identify. Typical locations include public places (such as parks, business districts), businesses, and residences. Particularly important to look at, though, are hospitals, clinics, homeless shelters, drop-in shelters, and group homes. These places may have concentrations of people with mental illness, or they may be common destinations for people who experience serious chronic mental illness or episodic mental health crises. There may also be certain times of the day, days of the week, or weeks of the year that the incidence of calls involving people with mental illness is particularly high. The routine schedules of agencies that assist people with mental illness might influence these peak times.
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both target areas and surrounding areas, if applicable. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)
The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of police responses to problems associated with people with mental illness:
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