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Keeping the Peace: Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons

NCJ Number
National Institute of Justice Journal Dated: July 2000 Pages: 8-15
Date Published
July 2000
8 pages
Publication Series
This analysis of police involvement with mentally ill persons who are creating a disturbance focuses on the role of police discretion, notes that police options are limited in practice, and suggests ways to address this issue.
Police involvement with mentally ill persons rests on the common law principles of the power and responsibility of the police to protect public safety and welfare and parens patriae, which dictates protection for disabled citizens such as mentally ill persons. The law allows the police officer to intervene, but it does not and cannot dictate the police officer's response in any given situation. The police officer's choices are to transport the person to a mental hospital, arrest the person, or resolve the matter informally. Initiating an emergency hospitalization often encounters bureaucratic obstacles, legal difficulties, and the reality that many psychiatric programs will not accept everyone. Consequently, jails and prisons may have become the long-term repository for people with mental disorders. However, the criminal justice system is not designed to be a major point of entry into the mental health system. The findings that mentally ill people are being criminalized suggest the need for changes in both the criminal justice and mental health systems: (1) the public mental health system must evolve to meet the challenges of deinstitutionalization; (2) a more integrated system of caregiving is needed; (3) the least restrictive alternative should be used; and (4) police officers need adequate training in recognizing and handling mentally ill persons. Tables, photograph, reference notes, and list of sources of further information

Date Published: July 1, 2000