RESEARCH WEEKLY: Role of Law Enforcement in Mental Illness Crisis Response  

During these unsettling and difficult times, calls for law enforcement reform are echoing throughout the country. 

Municipalities in the United States and throughout the world are discussing what a public safety system looks like in 2020 and beyond, including the role that law enforcement plays in our society. 

The Treatment Advocacy Center has been calling attention to the need to transform law enforcement’s role in communities for more than 20 years, starting with the work of our founder Dr. E. Fuller Torrey. Our research expertise includes the role of law enforcement in mental illness crisis response and how people with severe mental illness are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. 

What follows is a compilation of data and information on these important topics: 

16 times more likely   

Approximately one in four fatal police encounters involve an individual with severe mental illness, according to our 2015 report,  Overlooked in the Undercounted . This means that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by police, compared to people without mental illness. Reducing the disproportionate volume of contacts between law enforcement officers and people with severe mental illness is the single most immediate, practical strategy to reduce fatal police encounters for individuals with mental illness. Furthermore, there is currently no national government database collecting information regarding arrest-related deaths, let alone the role of mental illness or race disparities in these encounters.  

21% of officers time  

The role of law enforcement in mental illness crisis response is an enormous portion of department resources and budgets. Responding to and transporting individuals with mental illness occupies more than one-fifth of law enforcement officers’ time, according to our 2019 report, Road Runners . This outsized role is a result of the overrepresentation of people with mental illness within the criminal justice system, the length of time mental health crisis service calls take, the long distances law enforcement must travel to find available mental health resources and the time officers must wait while transporting individuals in crisis to an emergency department.     

Inadequate treatment capacity  

The lack of appropriate mental health treatment services in the community was the most prominent factor contributing to law enforcements’ outsized role in mental health crisis response, according to a thematic qualitative analysis of our 2019 law enforcement department  survey results . Survey respondents felt that many of the time and resource issues surrounding psychiatric transports are due to an inadequate supply of beds in the community for individuals to receive treatment. As with any other illness, severe psychiatric diseases have a variable illness course, with waxing and waning symptomology and resulting needs for the individual suffering. Therefore, a full continuum of psychiatric care, including outpatient, crisis, and acute care, as well as longer-term and residential-type beds, is needed for a functioning psychiatric system. Few communities in the United States have such a robust mental health care system in place.  

The United States is not the only nation learning to address the challenges around law enforcement’s role in mental illness response. As we wrote in  2019 , there are insights to be learned from the international community to facilitate treatment for people with mental illness while limiting law enforcement’s involvement. In 2018, I was lucky to participate in a meeting on these topics as a member of the Law Enforcement and Mental Health Special Interest Group as part of the Global Law Enforcement and Public Health Association. We put together an international  best practice guideline  for law enforcement response to people with mental illness in the community.  

As municipalities continue to examine the role law enforcement plays in our society, these data and resources can serve to inform evidence-based policy decisions.  

Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq
Director of Research
Treatment Advocacy Center

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Research Weekly is a summary published as a public service of the Treatment Advocacy Center and does not necessarily reflect the findings or positions of the organization or its staff. Full access to research summarized may require a fee or paid subscription to the publications.  

The Treatment Advocacy Center does not solicit or accept funds from pharmaceutical companies.