R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What It Means for Mentally Ill Suspects

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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  • justin


    May 2nd, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    Probabbly a lot of cops get on the defensive with mentally ill patients mainly because they don’t understand. What they may take as a lack of respect might actually just be a lack of understanding. I know that may times cops have to act on the spur of the moment, and might make some critical mistakes in large part due to that instantaneous jusdgement call that they have to make. Hopefully training like this will help to reteach them the best ways to act with the general public, and by doing so will give them tactics that they can also use with mentally ill patients too.

  • DuBose


    May 2nd, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    The saddest part of all of this is that wehn this happens there are very rarely any advocates for the mentally ill. Yes, they have a voice here and we all feel free to be that for the community on this site, but it is not always what will be encountered in the rest of society.

    Many times you will find that people are quick to jump to conclusions about someone without ever taking the time to get to know the real person. Think of how much you could be missing out on by doing that.

    Look, we all have to obey the law, that is a responsibility that we have to society. But we also owe it to one another to look after those who can’t look out for themselves. And this is the perfect example of a time when I think that we should all stand up and do that for those who may not think that they can do that for themselves.

  • miss thang

    miss thang

    May 3rd, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    Don’t you think that it would be true of anyone that when we perceive that we are being treated with respect and dignity then that is how we will respond in kind; however when we feel we are being wronged, then look out. Because there ain’t no sense in treating somebody wrong when you don’t even know their story.

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