Report: Cops Ill-Equipped to Handle Mental Illness Crisis in Hospitals
by Ed Lyon
The U.S. Department of Labor ranks hospitals as one of the most dangerous workplaces for a person to work. It seems that hospitals are even more dangerous a venue for a mentally ill person seeking treatment, particularly when police are involved.
“Cops are not trained in best practices to talk to or help someone suffering with mental health issues, let alone in an emergency room, and often arrest or hurt people they perceive as threatening—or worse,” according to Vice.com.
A report by the Treatment Advocacy Center titled “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” reveals that mentally ill people “are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement,” and it urges lawmakers to enact public policies to reduce the number of lives lost. Many, if not most hospitals, have their own security personnel. Others employ off-duty cops or even contract with a police department or sheriff’s office if located in a rural area for security. The vast majority of cops are not trained in the methods needed to deal with mentally ill citizens, of which more will typically be found in hospitals than on city streets. “Most techniques police officers use to restrain suspects—like handcuffs, Tasers, and tackling moves—are not considered medically appropriate for a person suffering from mental health problems,” notes Vice.com.
Vermont’s Division of Licensing and Protections survey director Suzanne Leavitt states that mental health patient restraint “is a medical intervention in a hospital. If you have the police come in and handcuff somebody that is not a medical intervention. Only doctors and nurses are legally permitted to physically deal with an agitated or violent mental [health] patient, and the methods they use for restraint and management like soft straps and injectable sedatives are regulated and monitored.”
Vermont’s Department of Mental Health (“DMH”) characterizes cops and security officers working in hospitals as outside contractors who need specialized training and respond to hospital staff’s supervision whenever they handle a patient. There has been an increase in the use of cops at hospitals, at least in Vermont, since Hurricane Irene in 2011 damaged its state hospital so badly it had to be closed. This was Vermont’s only hospital with a dedicated psychiatric treatment facility. The state’s remaining hospital system, eight of which are rural and have only 25 beds or fewer, are now severely overtaxed trying to provide for the health needs of mentally ill patients.
The bill for providing security services by police at city hospitals and sheriff’s deputies at rural hospitals has been paid by DMH. There has been little, if any, attention paid to expanding the skill sets cops already possess to include those needed to handle mentally ill patients. Regulatory agencies and federal regulators are hearing reports of cops mishandling mental patients at hospitals, and the problem has spread to Maryland, according to recent reports.
The Caledonia County, Vermont, Sheriff’s Department provides security for the Northeast Vermont Regional Hospital. Sheriff Dean Shatney stated his deputies primarily patrol the parking lot but have all been state-trained on how to respond to citizens undergoing a mental health crisis.
Some deputies have volunteered for an advanced level course. “When a crisis arises,” Shatney stated the responding deputies’ primary mission is “to keep everyone safe.”
Training, training, and more training is likely the best answer to the way average cops handle situations involving a mental health patient in crisis.