National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Law Enforcement in Small and Rural Communities

By Elaine Deck, former Senior Program Manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Co-Owner, Slaton Associates, LLC

Police shows on television, like Rookie Blue or Blue Bloods, always show huge teams of officers racing to a crime scene. They are often set in big city and have lots of resources for responding to crime. The truth is, in smaller and midsized communities, the types of crimes occurring, the numbers of crimes and arrests, and the resources available to respond to crime are vastly different.

Most law enforcement agencies in the United States are smaller and rural, including rural counties served by a sheriff, county or state police, or smaller town police. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 17,985 local and state law enforcement agencies in the United States and 86 percent of those serve populations up to 50,000 people. A very high percentage of that 86 percent have between one and 24 officers serving communities of 25,000 and fewer.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are among the most dedicated and selfless people you can know. They want to keep people safe and help improve the quality of life for the citizens they serve. They are literally on the front lines and are first responders to any emergency. We saw recently in Boston and Moore, Okla. how police operate in an emergency and how they are deeply affected by the hurt and injury of those to whom they respond.

One of the most frequent calls that local police and sheriffs receive are by or for individuals in emotional distress. First and foremost, law enforcement officers want to help people access the resources and services they need, especially those who are in need of medical or psychological care. However, the resources are few and far between in smaller and rural communities, limiting options for law enforcement. Hospitals become the primary source for receiving persons in distress, even if the hospital is 60 miles away. Officers are bound by law and protocol to take individuals who are a threat to themselves or others to a safe place where help might be available.

One of the most valuable law enforcement training and tools to come along in the past couple of decades is Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT).   CIT was developed for the Memphis, Tenn., Police Department by Major Sam Cochran as a response to the unfortunate shooting of a man with serious mental illness by police who did not realize the nature of the victim’s behavior. There are two components of CIT. First is training for law enforcement and their community partners. Second is building and sustaining a community partnership between law enforcement, community organizations, individuals living with mental illness and their family members, as well as medical and mental health providers.   Community mental health service providers or hospitals can develop protocols with law enforcement to ensure people needing mental health care get the help they need when they need it, where they need it. Because CIT brings together the broader community, it is a terrific service particularly to smaller and rural communities where resources are few and often stretched between several communities.

So what are the challenges to these law enforcement agencies when responding to people in emotional crisis? Here are some facts about how law enforcement usually operates and how local NAMI Affiliates might support them.

Challenges: Funding

Law enforcement agencies are funded through local business and/or property taxes that support city/town government. Since 2008, the economic downturn has impacted smaller and rural communities much more because their revenue sources are fewer than larger communities. That impacts all of the city/town services in the community. Most law enforcement agencies operate 24/7 and are required by law to meet stringent standards for training.  Officers receive extensive basic training and receive regular updates through in-services training. In addition to training, law enforcement agencies needs funding for:

  • Vehicles and the service and gas to keep them on patrol,
  • Service weapons, and safety vests,
  • Radios and their communication systems,
  • A facility to house the department and secure their confidential records,
  • Personnel including clerks, dispatchers, patrol officers, supervisors, investigators, leadership, and
  • Insurance to keep the municipality safe from law suits.

These are basic costs.  While the economic downturn has cut budgets, law enforcement agencies are still working hard to meet all the requirements of federal, state and local laws. As a result, agencies can have a difficult time if asked to add to their costs by doing additional training or providing specialized service—as is usually required by CIT programs.   

Challenges: Community Partnerships

Some law enforcement officers and leaders are not aware of how to build and sustain community partnerships. Often the focus of their training is more tactical in nature. This is where NAMI members can be incredibly supportive. Most of the officers trained in the past ten years know about the community policing approach and have been introduced to its fundamentals:

  • Collaborative community partnerships,
  • Organizational transformation that aligns the police agency mission with the agency structure, design, and implementation to build and support those partnerships, and 
  • Using problem solving strategies to prevent and respond to crime, fear and disorder.

All agencies want to serve their communities, but not all law enforcement use these principles of community policing as effectively as possible. CIT provides the framework to establish and sustain such partnerships.  The key is helping law enforcement leaders understand how CIT can help them do their jobs better.

How NAMI Affiliates Can Work with Local Law Enforcement

NAMI Affiliates can reach out to local law enforcement and help them to respond more effectively to individuals with mental illness or who are in emotional distress. At the national level, NAMI and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have joined CIT International to develop a stronger link between families, individuals with mental illness, service communities and law enforcement. We have worked to bring an updated CIT curriculum and guide to community engagement to law enforcement and the communities they serve.

With input from these partners, IACP held a national policy summit in 2008 that focused on improving police response to persons with mental illness. The summit report provides suggestions and guidance to local law enforcement on mental health crisis response.  Take the report to your local police chief and talk to them. Say you’d like to assist them to implement some of these recommendations to improve community safety.

Offer your assistance with funding and other practical challenges. For example, many local or national businesses provide grants to support local services, including law enforcement.  Check with local businesses, including large chains like Target and Wal-Mart to find how you can work with the police to obtain a grant.

Start a dialogue between your local NAMI Affiliate, and other individuals, family members or service providers and get them to join you in a partnership. Connect with NAMI’s CIT Center to find the steps to build a community law enforcement partnership.

Don’t give up. You may need to be persistent, but you can make a difference and improve law enforcement service. IACP and NAMI will provide support to you in any way they can.  

About the author:  Elaine Deck is a former Senior Program Manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. She was the coordinator of the IACP’s national policy summit, Improving Police Response to Persons with Mental Illness. She is now Co-Owner and Senior Associate of Slaton Associates, LLC, a consulting service supporting law enforcement and mental health providers. Ms. Deck has worked closely with NAMI, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, US Department of Justice, CIT International, and the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery to help improve education and training for law enforcement on persons with mental illness. She is a family member of a child with behavioral health challenges.

About the International Association of Chiefs of Police: The IACP is the oldest and largest police membership organization in the world with over 20,000 members in over 100 countries. They strive to serve the leaders of today and prepare the leaders of tomorrow through training, knowledge dissemination and information-sharing, grant management, and legislative education on law enforcement-related issues. IACP staff is currently working to develop policy alternatives to arrest for youth and other mental health or substance abuse issues.