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TEMPO: Police Interactions (Executive Summary)

It is increasingly apparent that interactions between police and people with mental illnesses constitute an ongoing challenge for police agencies. Data from a variety of sources indicate that such interactions are, if anything, reported more frequently than five to seven years ago. Lack of resources for services, treatments, and supports for people living with mental health problems and illnesses and the presence of stigmatizing attitudes and behaviours among the public continues to lead to the expectation of a police response when persons are in crisis.

Arising from fatality inquiries and coroners’ inquests and within the police community itself, there continues to be a focus on providing appropriate and sufficient education for police, not only so that they might recognize and understand mental illness, but also so that they might respond appropriately and empathically, employ de-escalation techniques as needed, avoid undue use of force, and attempt to connect people with mental illnesses with community agencies and services.

Based on responses to a comprehensive survey, Canadian police organizations at the basic training/academy level appear to be doing a reasonable job of providing the foundations for successful interactions between police and people with mental illnesses. Curricula increasingly tend to be multi-faceted using a variety of teaching methods (lectures, videos, online resources, role playing and scenarios, simulation, and written resources). Virtually all police academies included a firm grounding in the more academic aspects of understanding mental illness. They covered signs and symptoms of mental illness, assessment of suicide risk, basic communication strategies, essentials of mental health law, and intervention strategies. Most also include, at least to some degree, a discussion of societal attitudes and biases about mental illness and its accompanying stigma. The majority of police academies provide this education not only in a formal didactic fashion but also through scenario training and simulations.

However, there are still notable gaps. Most notable is the common failure to include people with mental illnesses in the development and delivery of curricula. The research literature about attitude change strongly supports the value of direct interactions with people with mental illnesses in order to change attitudes and, therefore, change behaviours.

To a lesser extent, police academies some still do not include mental health professionals in the development or delivery of curricula. The failure to include mental health professionals has, in some cases, led to the production of curriculum which is inaccurate or outdated. However, it also denies new officers the opportunity to become familiar with their mental health counterparts and begin to develop working alliances with mental health agencies.

Given the reasonably strong preparatory training that police officers receive during basic training, the trend with in-service education has been to focus more on development of skills and behaviours as opposed to knowledge and factual information about mental illness. There is an increased tendency for verbal de-escalation techniques and other communication skills to be emphasized, including an increased emphasis during use-of-force training. However, unfortunately, it is not uniformly the case that non-physical interventions are included in use-of-force training. Interestingly, in one province (BC), there is a move to revise the way in which use-of-force training has been taught, to the extent that the criteria and selection of use-of-force trainers will be altered to ensure that a balanced perspective, including an emphasis on the less aggressive means of intervention, will be emphasised.

The amount of in-service education is variable from one organization to another. A few require mandatory requalification training in this area, whereas many others do not. The interval of mandatory re-training can vary from one to several years, and the amount of education and training can vary from a single hour up to 12 to 18 hours. Again, it was found that people with mental illnesses are typically not included during the design and delivery of in-service education.

The above mentioned changes in the Canadian situation have occurred much in parallel to those in other jurisdictions including Ireland, Australia, Sweden, and the United States. In all cases, the trend seems to be toward more inclusive training; this includes not only factual information about mental disorders but also experiential learning to address attitudes and bias, and scenario or rolebased learning to emphasize skill acquisition. Nevertheless, it is not clear in the context of understanding and addressing mental illness that police organizations, overall, have well-integrated and effective initiatives to create a stigma-free police environment.

Perhaps the most noticeable change, when comparing the findings of the 2014 study with the 2008 and 2010 studies, is the increased attention to the necessity to prepare police personnel to de-escalate and defuse crisis situations whenever possible. While this is apparent in several police agencies and police academies, arguably, the Crisis Intervention and De-escalation (CID) training in BC is one of the most advanced and promising programs.

After considering the findings of the literature review, review of police learning programs including those from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and directly communicating with a variety of police and mental health professionals, the following key recommendations have been formulated to better prepare police personnel for contact with persons with a mental illness.

This is the executive summary of TEMPO: Police Interactions – A report towards improving interactions between police and people living with mental health problems.

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