Law enforcement officers throughout the country regularly respond to calls for service that involve people with mental illnesses—often without needed supports, resources or specialized training. These encounters can have significant consequences for the officers, people with mental illnesses and their loved ones, the community and the criminal justice system. Although constituting a relatively small number of an agency’s total calls for service, these encounters are among the most complex and time-consuming calls officers must address.
In response, jurisdictions across the country are exploring strategies to improve the outcomes of police contacts with people with mental illnesses and to provide a response that prioritizes treatment over incarceration when appropriate.
These efforts took root in the late 1980s, when the crisis intervention team and law enforcement-mental health co-response models first emerged, according to The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Since that time, hundreds of communities have implemented specialized policing programs. As a growing number of communities engage in the development of specialized policing responses, many grapple with the program design process and are unsure how to tailor models from other jurisdictions to their own distinct problems and circumstances.
To help guide these efforts, the Justice Center has launched the Law Enforcement/Mental Health Learning Sites Project to foster peer-to-peer learning and promote expertise-sharing among law enforcement agencies working to improve responses to people with mental illnesses in their jurisdiction. The Justice Center, with assistance from a team of national experts and the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, has selected six police departments to act as national law enforcement/mental health learning sites—agencies that will help other jurisdictions across the country improve their responses to people with mental illnesses.
The group selected police departments in Houston, Los Angeles, Madison, Wis., Portland, Maine, Salt Lake City and the University of Florida. Information about each site, along with instructions on how to request technical assistance from these agencies, is available on the Learning Site project website.
The six learning sites collectively reflect the range of strategies a law enforcement agency might consider when developing a collaborative initiative to address the needs of individuals with mental illnesses in their community. The departments have demonstrated a commitment to the elements outlined in the guide, The Essential Elements of a Specialized Law Enforcement-Based Program, while maintaining flexibility in designing their programs to meet the needs of their communities.
"There is nothing more tragic than seeing someone with a mental illness become involved with the criminal justice system primarily because he or she has not received adequate treatment in the community," said Indianapolis Public Safety Director and Justice Center board member Frank Straub. "The Learning Sites Project creates a forum for policing officials to learn from one another how to prevent those rare, but horrific encounters that result in injury or death; reduce repeat calls that take officers off the streets for long periods; and better link individuals to services when appropriate."
Each of these sites represents a strong collaborative effort between law enforcement and mental health agencies, while considering the input of other relevant stakeholders. As centers of peer-to-peer learning and support, learning site personnel are committed to providing guidance to agencies in other jurisdictions that are interested in creating or expanding their own specialized policing responses.