Individuals with serious mental illness (SMI) are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement personnel than people without mental illness. Drug and alcohol use, schizophrenia, and violent behaviors increase a person’s chances of engaging in activities that could warrant police interference. Police officers who interact with SMI individuals also realize the increased risk to their safety and the safety of the individual. Unfortunately, many of the police officers who deal directly with SMI individuals are ill-equipped to effectively handle the situations that arise. These officers, who often represent the gatekeepers to the judicial system or the mental health system, have expressed a desire for increased training to adequately address the needs of these most vulnerable individuals and decrease the risk to themselves, the individuals and the community at large.
The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is a training model based on the procedural justice theory and is used to teach police officers in over 1,000 communities how to treat SMI individuals with respect and dignity. Because it is a relatively new approach and little research has been conducted to test its effectiveness, Amy C. Watson of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago recently conducted a study to determine how a procedural justice–based approach like CIT would influence police/suspect interactions. Watson interviewed 154 SMI individuals who had experienced a police interaction within the previous 12 months and asked them to report the level of perceived procedural justice (PPJ), resistance, cooperation, and perceived stigma.
The results revealed that police officers who were more respectful and extended greater levels of PPJ were more likely to receive cooperation from the SMI individuals. However, this was only evident in those individuals who perceived low levels of stigma from the police officers. Those who perceived high levels of stigma from the officers were less cooperative. Surprisingly, when stigmatization was direct, the SMI individuals were more cooperative than when it was perceived. Watson believes that individuals with SMI may fear physical violence or danger from people who clearly disrespect them or diminish their worth because of their illness. This fear of prejudice could be deeply ingrained and cause SMI individuals to utilize defensive mechanisms that motivate them to submit to the requests of authority figures. Overall, these findings suggest that officers that use respectful measures receive more cooperation from individuals with SMIs. Watson added, “Procedural justice theory offers a useful lens for considering how specialized police training may transform both police behavior and citizen responsiveness.”
Watson, A. C., Angell, B. (2012). The role of stigma and uncertainty in moderating the effect of procedural justice on cooperation and resistance in police encounters with persons with mental illnesses. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027931
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