As found on Cochran Law Firm’s Facebook Live on March 22, 2018, from attorney Brian Dunn.
Today, I want to take a moment and talk about what is the law enforcement’s response to those who are mentally ill. Law enforcement officers are most commonly seen in a municipal setting, which is designed to serve the community. If you look at the side of the LAPD police cars, one of the slogans that you see most often it says “To Protect and To Serve”. That essentially means to convey the sentiment that the police are there to help, and that police are your friend, and that the police are there to provide service, and that as community members you should feel welcome to contact the law enforcement, and you should never fear the law enforcement.
Now, a lot of times those community relations take a hit when people see the police not acting in a manner that is perceived as friendly, equitable, or non-discriminatory. Of course, the most extreme example of the wedge that can happen between members of the community and law enforcement occurs during the situation of the officer involved shooting. This happens with incredible frequency in the following scenario:
A family member suffers from a mental illness. That family member’s mental illness may be exacerbated by a controlled substance. On this particular day or evening, that family member might be acting a bit more erratically and violently. Because of this, the family members call 9-1-1, and they say, “Our loved one is having some problems. Can you send somebody out to help? Can you send somebody out to give him counseling? He may need to be away for some time in an environment where he can receive therapy.”
Law enforcement officers come, they see the individual, and after a brief dialogue, the individual does not comply. Now the situation escalates to the point to where usually within the span of 30 seconds to three minutes, the person is shot dead in the home. Law enforcement will say that they did not expect this, they will say that they did not think that he was going to do what he did, and they will always say that they feared for their lives. What the family members are left with is their last memories of their loved one being marked by homicide. They also have to live with the memory of the fact that they brought the force into their home that killed their loved one voluntarily. They will always say, “Well, we wished we had never called 9-1-1 because we wanted the police to help.”
This brings to mind countless cases that I’ve handled in the last 24 years where this exact scenario has played out. In response to that, law enforcement has attempted to develop specific training protocols that have addressed this issue. Some of them are trained in the police academy, some of them are trained in service training with the departments; but they all basically boil down to specific tactical considerations that the police are supposed to use when dealing with someone who may be mentally ill, which all too often are not followed. For example, they are supposed to not threaten the person with violence; they are supposed to talk to them slowly. They’re supposed to keep their distance. They’re supposed to move slowly. All of the things are different than the normal training that we normally see law enforcement officers have, which is to kind of aggressively move in, and if an arrest must be made, effectuate it quickly.
The concept of escalation and de-escalation never plays out more directly than when dealing with individuals who are suffering from mental illness because they don’t always perceive reality in the same way that others do. That’s a simple consideration, but it’s very difficult for someone that doesn’t understand it. For example, if the officer tells the person to step back and the person says, “F you. I’m not going to do it.” That officer may think that the person intends to hurt them or kill them. In actuality, what is happening is that the person is so out of touch with reality that they’re simply responding in a fight or flight mode and they have no intention to commit violence. The issue becomes one of tactics.
When something like this happens, it draws a wedge between law enforcement and the community. When family members are lost, there is an overwhelming sense of horror. When it becomes made clear that had the law enforcement responded differently or employed different tactics, the situation could have been prevented. Because even if family members are at their wits end with their loved one, they did not want that person to die, and they will never say ever that we in a million years thought this would happen. In fact, one of the reasons they want to hire firms like The Cochran Firm is because they don’t want it to happen again and they don’t want this kind of thing to happen to someone else.