Twenty to 25% of the homeless populace in the United States have a serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, those with manic outbreaks, and those with severe depressive episodes. The mental health and legal systems are significantly failing these 9.6 million people creating a critical deficiency of services, such as community-based treatment, psychiatric prescriptions, and living accommodations. As a result, police are typically called to deal with incidents or disruptions triggered by the behavior of someone suffering with a serious mental disorder. Jails are the contemporary mental hospitals. Lack of funding, facilities, and understanding leaves arresting the ill person, criminalizing them, as the customary police response.
This situation was exemplified recently in New Mexico, where Elijah Dominguez is filing suit against Colfax County and Raton police officers for violation of his constitutional rights. The suit is based on Dominguez’s arrest in May, 2013 for disturbing the peace. The arrest took place at a Denny’s restaurant where his loud preaching bothered others. Dominguez was incarcerated for four days at the Colfax County Detention Center and held in isolation, for four days, in a holding cell. During that time, his mental psychosis was apparent. His bizarre behavior included nude dancing, talking to the wall, and an inability to sleep. No medical treatment was offered or provided. Charges were dismissed.
Police are not street psychiatrists. Many police agencies are working to improve their role in incidents involving individuals with mental illness, but there has not been a concerted effort to develop a thorough and protective approach to the crisis. The most frequent types of situations where police officers become involved with people with mental illness are:
- Alert of a psychiatric emergency by the family, or other concerned individual
- Suicide alert from the mentally ill person
- Public display of bizarre behavior
- Reports of imaginary threats by the suffering individual
- Citizen reports of threatening or strange behavior by an individual
Police officers may respond to incidents in typical ways; giving out directions or commands, or making an arrest. Complications develop when the mentally ill individual fails to comply or cooperate. The police difficulty is further obfuscated because mental illness is frequently linked with homelessness, and drug or alcohol abuse.
The Dominguez’ lawsuit is the latest New Mexico case where law enforcement officers have been accused of harming a mentally ill suspect and it has prompted advocates to push for reforms, including passing a “Kendra’s Law” which requires individuals with severe mental illness to use medication or face compulsory hospitalization. Current compulsory treatment laws are inadequate. Every year, nationwide:
- 15,000 individuals who have a mood disorder commit suicide
- Out of two million schizophrenics, 300,000 commit suicide
- 30,700 people with severe mental health issues are arrested and jailed (not including prisons)
- 150,000 people with serious mental health issues are homeless or live in shelters
Before Kendra’s Law, mentally ill individuals had to be become dangerous before they were legally required to get treatment. The law is designed to avert the development of dangerous behavior. Kendra’s Law lets courts rule that an individual must accept treatment if they have a history of arrests, incarcerations, or unnecessary hospitalization. It also allows judges to demand mental health facilities to provide services to those with serious mental illnesses, instead of admitting only patients more treatable. Numerous studies of Kendra’s Law have shown positive results. The program consistently helps people who are mentally ill and they report that the law has helped them to become well and stay well.