Report Highlights Need for Police Sensitivity to Mental Health

August 1, 2002

The Council of State Governments argues that police should be better trained to deal with mentally ill offenders. Increased funding is being requested in Congress to support educational programs for law enforcement.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a sponsor of a law creating mental health courts, said he expected to take the next step and introduce legislation to authorize more funding for treatment and other services for mentally ill people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. "Our goal is to establish, within the criminal justice system and the mental health system, a network of diagnostic, preventive and treatment services that will target the mentally ill early, and effectively so that mental health services are provided as soon as possible and as efficiently and effectively as possible," DeWine said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 11.

The hearing was held to discuss a new report from the Council of State Governments (CSG) that argues that police should be better trained to deal with mentally ill offenders, who should be diverted from jail in most instances. The Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, which operated under the auspices of the CSG, actually wrote the report.

Gary Margolis, director of police at the Services University of Vermont, presented the CSG recommendations. He prefaced the recommendations by emphasizing that any person who commits a serious crime should be arrested, prosecuted and appropriately sentenced. He added, "But as the examples I am about to provide you illustrate, when it comes to our response to people with mental illness who commit less serious crimes, we can serve them and our communities better with collaborative police-mental health approaches."

Those collaborative approaches would be based on such things as dispatch protocols to determine whether mental illness is a factor in the supposed offense and the relaying of relevant information accurately and appropriately to officers. Once on the scene, officers should be able to recognize signs or symptoms of mental illness and have the ability to quickly consult mental health care professionals in order to determine whether the person might meet the criteria for emergency evaluation.

Margolis said that money from the federal government is needed to start the kinds of programs the CSG report recommended, especially because local and state governments are so strapped for funds these days.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, testified at the hearing, "The Council's report provides a roadmap for our consideration. Although there may be recommendations in the report with which some members of this Committee disagree, I think we should all agree that it makes sense to help State and local governments improve the availability of mental health services, train their law enforcement personnel to recognize the signs of mental illness in offenders, and give prosecutors more tools to deal appropriately with mentally ill offenders." Leahy also emphasized the importance of helping mentally ill offenders to reintegrate into society after their release from jail. Toward that end, he inserted an amendment into the fiscal 2003 Department of Justice authorization legislation requiring a study on that subject.

The CSG report focused on what happens to a mentally ill person before they are charged with a crime; the bill DeWine sponsored deals with what happens to those people after they are charged. Congress appropriated $4 million in fiscal 2002 to the mental health courts created by the law DeWine helped pass in September of 2000. Andrew Sperling, director of public policy for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the bill actually authorized $10 million a year. He told Psychiatric Times, "We hope that funds beyond the initial $4 million will be appropriated to that program, and that the grant program will make police departments eligible for some of this funding support."