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Policing Mentally Disordered Suspects: A Reexamination of the Criminalization Hypothesis

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 39 Issue: 2 Dated: May 2001 Pages: 225-252
Date Published
May 2001
29 pages

This article examines the relationship between suspect mental health and use of arrest by police.


The criminalization hypothesis is based on the assumption that police inappropriately use arrest to resolve encounters with mentally disordered suspects. This hypothesis is based primarily on three areas of research: statistical descriptions of the proportion of mentally disordered persons in prisons and jails; follow-up studies of the arrest rates of former mental patients; and field research comparing the arrest rates of mentally disordered and non-mentally disordered suspects. Data were collected from two large-scale, multi-site field studies of police behavior, the Project on Policing Neighborhoods (POPN) conducted in 1996-97, and the Police Services Study (PSS) conducted in 1977. POPN data were gathered using observations of patrol officers and field supervisors in Indianapolis, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida. The PSS data were gathered in 24 police departments in three metropolitan areas: Rochester, New York; St. Louis, Missouri; and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida. Results showed that police were not more likely to arrest mentally disordered suspects. Future research is needed to study the effects of officers’ education and attitudes on their decisions involving mentally disordered suspects. Also studies should determine whether there are higher rates of arrest in communities where mental health services are unavailable or inaccessible. Although limited by sample size, the results reported are the best using existing data. To overcome this limitation, future data collection efforts will need to oversample calls for service involving mentally disordered persons to obtain a larger and more representative sample of encounters with police. 4 tables, 5 notes, and 51 references.

Date Published: May 1, 2001