Think Twice Before Calling the Cops on the Mentally Ill

A caregiver explains how dialing 911 can put both police officers and developmentally disabled people in a needlessly dangerous position.

Jim Young / Reuters

Earlier this month, while arguing that various types of interactions between police officers and Americans ought to be minimized, I made special mention of the mentally ill, having seen so many stories about their being brutalized or killed by the cops. Many encounters involve excessive force. In many others, police take action against a person with a deadly weapon. The results are often tragic.

A social worker who cares for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled has now contacted me to explain why he prefers that people avoid calling the police if at all possible when it comes to the sorts of disabled people for whom he cares. In fact, the danger of dialing 911 is something he emphasizes in all orientation sessions for new employees at the organization where he works. And when one of his organization’s charges becomes loud or disruptive in a public place, as inevitably happens on occasion, bystanders are actively encouraged not to call the police, too.

To explain his thinking, he first shared a story concerning a 20-year-old with autism who lives in a group home. The 20-year-old became loud and aggressive one day while shopping in a store. “The caretaker staff had worked with this guy and his behavior clinician for quite a while, so they were able to deescalate the situation without anyone being hurt or any property destroyed,” my source wrote. “They left only to be confronted by police in the parking lot. The staff tried to explain that the situation was in hand, that the guy had an intellectual disability, and that he had just had an outburst; but that he hadn't destroyed anything or hurt anyone and wasn't a danger to anybody, and they were planning on going back home.”

But the police wouldn't let the matter drop.

“They began barking orders at the kid and ended up tasing him when he didn't comply,” said my correspondent. “He ended up getting arrested and thrown in jail, though he was fortunately put in a segregated cell, and was transferred to a mental-health unit of a local hospital fairly quickly. Obviously, this was all completely unnecessary and wouldn't have escalated to that point if someone hadn't freaked and called the cops just because some young guy was yelling in a store.”

For broader context I asked him to explain why he and his colleagues are generally averse to contact between police and their charges. He agreed, asking that I withhold his name because the board of directors of the organization that employs him doesn’t like it when employees speak to the media. His answer shows how both police and the mentally ill are put in difficult positions when they interact:

When I teach staff orientation and crisis intervention I cover three main points when I strongly discourage caretaker staff from contacting the police:

1) Some people with developmental disabilities simply don't have the cognitive skills to comply with even reasonable, lawful orders. The police responding to a call are often not familiar with the person that they've gotten the call about, and many developmental disabilities aren't accompanied with easily distinguishable physical characteristics; the possibility that law enforcement will be unaware that they're dealing with intellectual disabilities is quite high during the chaotic early moments of an encounter. Many police in this situation interpret non-compliance as active resistance, particularly when the individual is a young, strong man acting erratically, and their training drives them to advance on their use of force continuum. This isn't to say that this is always an inappropriate or thuggish response, just that many police agencies teach their officers both formally and informally to gain control of a situation quickly. Being in the dark about a person's limitations can make it harder to find opportunities for a less dangerous way to do it.

2) Some people with developmental disabilities and mental illness just don't have the reasoning ability to grasp the danger of resisting police. I've worked with people that have had officers come to their homes after caretaker staff have called the police and have actually attacked the responding officers, sometimes with weapons like forks and table knives, and have been tased or injured while being subdued. When their behavior clinicians and caretaker staff talk to them afterwards, it's often obvious that they just don't understand how much danger they had put themselves in.  

3) Every tense situation that escalates into police contact for people with disabilities is a failed opportunity for the individual to learn and practice the kinds of self regulation and coping skills that are critical for them to lead meaningful, productive lives. There are people with cognitive disabilities that can be loud, verbally aggressive, and disruptive, but don't pose any meaningful danger to the people around them; these people and can and do learn ways to channel their frustrations in socially acceptable ways. Calling the police, except as a last resort, puts them and the responding officers at unnecessary risk, and denies them the opportunity to learn to control their emotions and manage the own behavior when the stakes are lower.   

He concluded by observing that while he’s painfully aware of instances where police failures lead to the unnecessary deaths of the mentally ill or developmentally disabled, the police department in the small city where he works “is pretty good about doing the kind of community policing that gets their officers in contact with the people in the community that have developmental disabilities and mental illness,” and that they’ve “been generally slow to to use force and have often stood by while caretaker staff work to help people deescalate.” He’s even been in situations “where people I work with were brandishing weapons at people and police have stood by and allowed me space to talk them down.” It struck me that despite considering his local police force to be above average in this respect, he is still strongly averse to calling them for help if it is at all avoidable.