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Ask a Cop: Avoiding Arrest During a Mental Health Crisis

Sherry Cusumano and Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner

Ask a Cop is a new occasional column produced by NAMI’s CIT Center, answering common questions about law enforcement and mental health issues. The column is an opportunity to learn about the law enforcement officer’s perspective on how officers, providers and individuals and families affected by mental illness can work together to improve crisis responses. To ask a question, please email with the subject line “Ask a Cop.” Please note that we will not be able to answer all questions or to discuss individual legal cases.

Contributors: Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner is a 25 year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. He has served Dallas PD as a CIT officer and is the department’s Crisis Intervention Mental Health Liaison. Sr. Corporal Cotner is also the Vice President of NAMI Dallas. 

Sherry Cusumano, RN, LCDC, MS is the President of NAMI Dallas and Executive Director of Community Education and Clinical Development at Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She’s been trained in the Memphis Model CIT Program and has worked closely with the Dallas Police Department to assist in providing CIT training to numerous law enforcement agencies in the region.

Q: Why are law enforcement officers responding to people experiencing mental health crises?

A: Fifty years ago, people with serious mental illnesses often were committed indefinitely to state psychiatric hospitals.  States and courts began to find that these hospitals were often abusive and not humane environments for long-term care, and ordered many people released to community-based mental health services. With the advent of de-institutionalization there was an unanticipated upswing in the number of homeless people in our communities and the number of crisis calls coming into our law enforcement agencies. This should not have been a surprise since the infrastructure to provide care did not shift to community mental health systems as many individuals were “freed” from the state psychiatric hospitals.  With this reduction in mental health services, law enforcement and the criminal justice system have been on a forty year learning curve to better identify and respond to mental health crisis situations.

Family members and the community at-large were unprepared to help these individuals living with serious mental illness with their complex needs. Those struggles at times have become frightening and even unsafe for those not trained to identify and appropriately respond to a mental health crisis. Those are the times when people call 911 out of a concern for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. Law enforcement is now part of the treatment team since they are frequently the first responders. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for providing for a safe community for our citizens and are required to respond when they receive a call for assistance. In the absence of 24/7 crisis mental health services, law enforcement are required to respond to calls for assistance. 

Q: If I have to call the police for assistance for myself or a loved one, what can I do to avoid an arrest?

A:  We are strong believers that the best way to avoid an arrest is to prevent the crisis event. We always suggest that individuals and their families track crisis events and follow up with each other so they can figure out patterns and triggers to act on before the crisis. If you can act on Monday instead of waiting until the crisis event on Friday, then more options are available. You can contact a peer program, mobile crisis unit, a crisis line, group session, doctor’s office, or take an action that might have worked in the past.  

We all know that sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, situations can escalate into a crisis; everyone should have a crisis procedure carefully prepared and documented ahead of time. NAMI’s Family-to-Family course includes a section which contains a “Crisis File” that can be used to prepare for such emergencies. Many NAMI Affiliates have published crisis procedures that they give to their members to assist them in their preparation for those times when a crisis can’t be prevented. Every time a crisis is prevented through proactive intervention and assistance, it reduces the likelihood of contact with law enforcement and an arrest. Every time that an individual goes in to a crisis, the odds of an assault, injury or arrest are increased. Through crisis intervention team (CIT) training, many law enforcement agencies are doing their part to decrease the odds of such events happening. When an assault does occur, most jurisdictions require officers to arrest an individual, in compliance with family violence laws.