Police departments have become a de facto arm of the American mental-health system. Research suggests that about 2 million people with serious mental illness are booked into jails in the United States each year. A 2016 review of studies estimated that 1 in 4 people with mental illness has a history of police arrest. The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that studies topics related to mental health, has calculated that the odds of being killed during a police encounter are 16 times as high for individuals with untreated serious mental illness as they are for people in the broader population.
Amid the failures of deinstitutionalization — a decades-long push to treat people with mental illness in the community rather than in mental institutions — police officers have increasingly assumed the role of first responders to psychiatric emergencies; law enforcement agencies across the country are grappling with how to manage this responsibility.
One approach has been to provide police with more training, such as in how to recognize signs of mental illness, techniques for crisis de-escalation and ways to connect individuals with mental-health resources. Another approach involves partnering with mental-health professionals such as social workers.
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