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A renewed focus on mental health for police—and the vulnerable populations they encounter.

Policing and mental health drew increased attention from policymakers and the public this year. Nationwide, estimates have shown that at least 10 percent of calls to police now involve people who have a serious mental illness.Doris Muller, H. Richard Lamb, Michael Biasotti, and John Snook, Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters (Arlington, VA: Treatment Advocacy Center, 2015), 1; and David M. Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long, Ruderman White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability: A Media Study (2013-2015) (Boston, MA: Ruderman Family Foundation, 2016).

People with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities also comprise a disproportionate number of those who have encounters with police outside of the emergency call system.James Livingston, “Contact Between Police and People With Mental Disorders: A Review of Rates,” Psychiatric Services 67, no. 8 (2016), 850-57. An estimated two million adults with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails each year.For the approximate percentages of mental illness among people in jail, see Henry J. Steadman, Fred C. Osher, Pamela Clark Robbins, et al., “Prevalence of Serious Mental Illness Among Jail Inmates,” Psychiatric Services 60, no. 6 (2009), 761-65. For the most recent data on the number of jail admissions, see Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2016 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics 2018). At least two states legislated additional training for officers dealing with vulnerable populations.

In May, Oklahoma SB 993 became law, requiring law enforcement officers to use special techniques when interviewing “elderly and incapacitated adults and individuals with intellectual disabilities.”Oklahoma SB 993 (2018). In November, Washington State voters approved I-940, which mandates training for police in de-escalation and mental health intervention, as well as requiring them to administer first aid.Washington State Initiative 940 (2018). The initiative was drafted in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles in 2017, a 30-year-old black mother of four who had called police to report a burglary.“Lawsuit against Officers Who Shot Charleena Lyles Has Been Dismissed,” KIRO 7 News, January 8, 2019. When officers responded, Lyles, who had a known history of mental illness and was armed with at least one knife, became distressed and belligerent.Jerry Large, “Charleena Lyles Death by Police Adds to a List That Should Shame Us,” Seattle Times, June 22, 2017.

Because police are often the first responders for people with mental illness, the widespread lack of mental health preparedness and response training among local police officers has direct consequences for officer and public safety as well as individual and community health—sometimes leading to tragic outcomes.Muller et al., Overlooked in the Undercounted, 2015; and Alisa Roth, “A Worried Mom Wanted the Police to Take Her Mentally Ill Son to the Hospital. They Shot Him,” Vox, May 30, 2018. This problem was front and center at the 125th International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in October, where representatives from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) offered guidance on how law enforcement agencies can develop police-mental health collaborations.Nancy Perry, “How to Build an LE Mental Health Community Response Model,”, November 1, 2018. Recognizing the growing demand for mental health intervention and de-escalation training for police, the Policing Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, in partnership with BJA, launched “Serving Safely” to provide guidance to police departments and prosecutors seeking to improve their responses to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.Vera Institute of Justice, “Serving Safely: The National Initiative to Enhance Policing for Persons with Mental Illnesses and Developmental Disabilities.”

National attention has also turned to officers’ mental health.Jack Crosbie, “Cops are Dying by Suicide—and No One is Talking About It,” Men’s Health, May 31, 2018. Also see Tiffany S. Thomas, “PTSD: ‘The Dirty Little Secret of Law Enforcement,” The Crime Report, March 21, 2018. An April white paper by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that law enforcement officers report much higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, and other anxiety-related mental health conditions than the general population.Miriam Heyman, Jeff Dill, and Robert Douglas, The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders (Newton, MA: The Ruderman Family Foundation, 2018). But help for law enforcement personnel with mental health conditions may be forthcoming on the federal level. In January, President Trump signed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act.Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, H.R. 2228 (2017); and Frank Borelli, “President Trump Signs LEO Mental Health Act into Law,”, January 11, 2018. The law, which unanimously passed both houses of Congress, provides grant money to initiate law enforcement peer mentoring pilot programs and directs the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop educational resources for mental health providers about therapies for mental health issues common to law enforcement officers.Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, H.R. 2228 (2017).