New Checklist Being Tested To Help Cops Respond To People With Mental Illness

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Two law enforcement agencies have begun field testing a new screening form that may eventually lead to a better means for identifying people with severe mental illness who may be a danger to themselves or others.

The brief form, a checklist consisting of some 20 factors and/or indicators that are commonly associated with mental illness, was designed by Ron Hoffman, a former Toronto constable. After a career that also includes stints in corrections, probation services, and the courts system, Hoffman now is an instructor and coordinator of tactical communications and mental-health issues at the Ontario Police College, which provides basic and in-service training for 50 police services in that Canadian province.

“Street officers from the 2 pilot departments are carrying copies of the form with them on patrol,” he explained to Force Science News. When they encounter subjects on complaint calls or during on-view contacts they believe may have a mental illness, “they will take whatever action they would normally take, such as delivering the subject to a hospital or to jail. But they will also complete the anonymous ‘screener’ form, marking those characteristics on it that pertain to that particular subject.”

At the least, the form ultimately will provide a couple of important benefits, Hoffman foresees:

  1. By referring to items they’ve checked on the form, “officers will be helped in articulating reasonable grounds for suspecting the presence of a mental disorder.” Somewhat like a force continuum, “it can help an officer organize his observations and explain why a subject can be considered a risk to himself or others, in a language consistent with that used in the medical field,” Hoffman says.
  2. It is hoped that down the road “the form will help speed up the transfer of custody from police to hospital,” Hoffman says. “That is, subjects displaying itemized characteristics of severe mental disorder will more readily be admitted to hospitals for further observation and assessment.”

In some smaller hospitals, he explains, “ER departments are often staffed by practitioners who don’t always have a lot of training about mental disorders. So the form is a way to help inform these medical personnel, as well as officers.”

As it is now, Hoffman says, calls involving mental subjects are often “very frustrating and very complex for officers. Using the common language of the form will keep the mental health system and the criminal justice system on the same page. Officers should be able clear these calls quicker while helping to see that the person with mental problems receives prompt access to mental-health services.”

Long-term, Hoffman also hopes that meticulous, computerized analysis of the data collected will establish a connection between a particular combination of observable characteristics and a high risk of potentially dangerous behavior. This information could then be incorporated into police training to enhance the safety of officers and subjects alike.

Hoffman believes he needs a database compiled from at least 400 completed forms before he can produce a reliable statistical analysis. With about 200 sworn officers from 2 Canadian police services participating in the pilot, he guesses that number can be accumulated by sometime next winter, with the analysis completed in the spring of 2012.

The researcher will not publicly share the full contents of the form at this point, but he told FSN that the checklist includes items such as whether the subject:

  • experiences hallucinations, such as hearing “voices”
  • abuses illegal substances
  • has violent thoughts
  • is dressed inappropriately for the weather
  • has a history of violent acts
  • displays suicidal behavior
  • has used weapons
  • shows threatening behavior toward others.

“Criteria embedded in the form should reveal whether the subject has a severe mental disorder and whether he or she is a danger to self or others,” Hoffman says. “It took many meetings to refine the entries to the point where they satisfied both health and police professionals.”

In fashioning his concise screener, Hoffman drew from an 11-page itemized intake form that is mandated for all patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Ontario. That exhaustive itemization was abstracted from an analysis of 40,000 mental-health cases—“highly valid statistically but not practical to be shared with or used by police,” Hoffman says.

After his pilot study Hoffman hopes to be able to prune his single-sheet evaluation list even more, to comprise only the most statistically relevant indicators that working cops need to identify in determining whether an individual is likely to be admitted for psychiatric observation. The end result, he explains, “will be applicable for law enforcement everywhere.”

Hoffman, who holds a master’s degree in psychology, intends that the findings from his research will be used in his dissertation for a PhD in Health Studies that he is pursuing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

As results are available, FSN will report further on this research.

Meantime, you can find a wealth of useful information about dealing with subjects who are mentally ill in a 55-page handbook that Hoffman has co-authored, called “Not Just Another Call…Police Response to People with Mental Illnesses: A Practical Guide for the Frontline Officer.”

For that project, Hoffman not only consulted extensively with authorities on mental disorders but also conducted focus groups with mental patients themselves.

Among other questions, he asked the patients, “You’re off your medication and feel yourself losing control…what could a law enforcement officer do to calm you down?” Their unique insights, along with professional guidance, were incorporated into the handbook, which can be viewed below:

[Ron Hoffman can be emailed at: ron.hoffman@ontario.ca. Our thanks to his Ontario Police College colleague Chris Lawrence, a use-of-force authority and faculty member for the Force Science Analysis certification course, for alerting us to Hoffman’s newest research project.]

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