Community News
Police Taught Proper Response To Mentally Ill Suspects
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 3 page 13-13

Detroit police will now receive training on how they should deal with handicapped, mentally ill, and homeless citizens as part of a program for more sensitivity and accountability. The first sweeping changes to the Detroit Police Department’s general orders in 30 years mandate that officers put special emphasis on citizen safety and call for more training in communicating with and handling people with disabilities, including mentally ill or deaf people.

"I’m pleased to hear of these changes," Mark Reinstein, Ph.D., president of the Mental Health Association (MHA) in Michigan, told Psychiatric News. "This is necessary and important training that will benefit peace officers and the people they come in contact with. The possibility of hostile confrontation will be lessened, and perhaps consumers will have a better chance of being diverted from incarceration to an appropriate human service resource."

The changes, covered in a 1,000-page manual, address how and when officers should fire their weapons and how they should act during arrests and police chases, among other topics.

The new guidelines come at a time when the 4,200-member force is under a federal investigation sparked two years ago by mistreatment of prisoners and witnesses, missing drug evidence, and a number of questionable shootings by Detroit police officers, including that of a deaf, mentally ill man who was killed after threatening officers with a garden rake. The city has paid out $123 million in 13 years stemming from successful lawsuits against officers and officials who broke the rules.

"Some officers are from the old school that taught to take action first," Clarence Porter of the Wayne County—National Association for the Mentally Ill told Psychiatric News.

"They believe that if anyone, including a mentally ill person, picks up any kind of weapon—no matter what it is—they should blow them away," said Porter, who has helped educate Wayne County employees about people with disabilities and the mentally ill. His two-day class is attended by members of the state police, sheriffs, jail workers, and airport and university police.

"The police training manual allots only one hour for this type of training, but we say that is not enough," Porter added. Now recruits at the police academy are given a six-hour training session on sensitivity toward people with disabilities.

The Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Michigan (NAMI) have a curriculum for training the law enforcement community that has been developed over the past eight to 10 years, according to Michele Reid, M.D., president of the Michigan Psychiatric Society and medical director of Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Authority. More than 900 professionals representing more than 30 law enforcement organizations in Wayne County have been trained as a part of the agency’s and NAMI’s campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illness and developmental disabilities and to work with community partners to improve access to needed mental health services.

The new guidelines and training were unanimously approved by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

Officers will be required to follow tighter rules regarding the use of force. They are now prohibited from shooting at suspects in moving vehicles, which was allowed under the old guidelines. Officers will now be expected to exercise better judgment when deciding whether to carry out high-speed car chases of suspects. Under a new domestic violence policy, officers will receive more training to deal with disputes between family members. The old rules did not require officers to receive any domestic violence training. The new policy will call for Detroit police officers to abide by state laws when dealing with domestic violence situations, a provision not previously included.

"I think this would help," Hubert Huebl, M.D., president of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Michigan, told Psychiatric News. "Anything that is done to try to educate police on how to react and deal with the mentally ill would be to the good.

"Oftentimes police are called when someone is out of control, and sometimes they might act inappropriately. But it is not their fault because they are not familiar with how a mentally ill person might act."

Police Chief Jerry Oliver, hired this year by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with orders to clean up the police department, promised more changes are on the horizon.

"The new policy changes were long overdue," Oliver said. "In the future, more changes will be made, and guidelines will be expanded, with more extensive training for police officers." ▪

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