My patrol officers and I responded to the city park on a report of a homeless person acting strangely, which is a common call we receive. Upon contacting this man, we could immediately see he was mentally unstable. Whether this condition was something he had been born with or whether it was the result of him recently smoking methamphetamines, was unknown. The homeless man pulled a knife on us. Perhaps he was delusional and thought he was seeing monsters, or perhaps he hates the police, in these situations the reasons do not matter. What mattered was one of my patrol officers had given him a lawful order to stop, and he refused.

We attempted to retreat but he quickly advanced. One of my patrol officers was forced to draw his firearm and shoot the man in order to stop his attack. Was it a lawful shoot? We will never actually know because this is a fictional scenario. However, in the real world a District Attorney would likely rule this was a lawful shooting. Perhaps it would be lawful, but it would also be awful.

Lawful but Awful

The term “lawful but awful” describes a situation in which the police have legal cause for the action they took but that action was the result of law enforcement being forced into a situation that could have been avoided. Some of the most important and dangerous issues facing law enforcement today concern citizens with severe mental health illnesses. Law enforcement officers are inundated with calls which place us in situations that have nothing to do with actual law enforcement but instead require us to handle various mental health crises.

Often law enforcement officers are forced into these situations and find themselves ill-equipped to handle the mental health breakdowns they face. How many of the recent officer-involved shootings on viral YouTube videos show shootings that were lawful but also awful?

Why Are We Here?

As law enforcement leaders, frontline supervisors, and hard-working patrol officers, we must look at why we are here. Why are we, the police, being sent to deal with a mentally ill person in crisis and are we equipped with the best tools to handle the job?

With the scrutiny currently being placed upon us, it is important that we continue to intentionally evaluate every call for service and whether law enforcement should be the first responder. The old motto, “You call, we come” is now overly simplistic for the highly litigious and perilous environment officers must operate in. We have responded to mental health calls for decades because, after all, we are first responders and our nation’s designated problem solvers. The question seldom asked is specifically what are we going to do when we get there?

Consider an armed and suicidal person barricaded in their home. What tools and tactics are appropriate to use as we try to dislodge a non-criminal barricaded suspect refusing to surrender? After all, we are law enforcement officers, not mental health professionals, doctors or psychologists. Yet we are often the first to respond in situations full of uncertainty and rife with potential problems. A call for a suicidal person will cause armed police officers to be sent to the person’s location. Will showing up with firearms and tasers agitate the suicidal person and set the stage for a lawful but awful situation?

Current State of Affairs

Although recent California bills such as AB 392 and SB 230 have helped get necessary funding and training for de-escalation, will similar state and national bills be enough to prepare officers to respond to the mentally ill in crisis? For instance, how well will new de-escalation skills work on an individual who is suffering from “diminished capacity?” Diminished capacity describes a condition where, because of mental illness or substance abuse, a person does not possess the mental faculties to cooperate regardless of an officer’s de-escalation skills.

Some people in society have a flawed expectation on how first responders will respond to a mental health emergency. In their minds, the ambulance pulls up, the mentally ill subject jumps in and off they go peacefully to the hospital. No one gets hurt, no use of force is required and definitely no one dies. But often that is not how it works, that is not reality.

For example, if a person calls and reports their family member is running down the street naked and foaming at the mouth, it is the police who will be sent first to “make the scene safe” for the medical responders. Even though these calls are medical and mental health emergencies, it is law enforcement officers who are sent in first.

The Future

Agencies across the United States are revamping the way they train for and respond to incidents. Luckily, the agency I work for is very progressive and has incentivized crisis intervention training for all officers. This is certainly a good start as we continue to tackle these challenging situations. Other agencies have stopped responding to certain incidents all together. For example, a few agencies in California are no longer sending officers to incidents which could be “suicide by cop” situations unless there are extenuating circumstances. What will other police agencies do when faced with a suicide by cop situation? Will they be forced to take a person’s life simply because a very ill suicidal subject wanted the police to do just that.

For the foreseeable future, most agencies will continue to send law enforcement officers to incidents involving the mentally ill. Therefore, the way we train and deploy law enforcement officers will need to continuously evolve. Frontline police supervisors will need to be trained in a methodology to deicide when they should disengage from non-criminal barricades. Department leaders will need to develop protocols and best practices especially those that incorporate assistance from medical and mental health professionals. I look forward to seeing more community partnerships to help our officers overcome what has become a community crisis.

Lloyd MacKinnon is an instructor with the Savage Training Group and a Sergeant with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Office in California.
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