When I was a rookie cop, I responded to a call for a man who reported that his home had been burglarized.
My partner and I arrived on the scene and checked the exterior of the home for forced entry and found none. Once we made contact with the homeowner, he explained that the burglars hadn’t taken anything from his home. Instead, they moved the remote control to his television and emptied his ice-cube trays.
I stopped taking notes for a moment and made eye contact with my partner who happened to be a veteran officer. A look of clarity came over his face but I was still perplexed. He engaged the man in some more discussion and we learned that he suspected his neighbors of breaking into his home and moving his belongings. He further declared that they installed hidden cameras so they could monitor his movement. I looked around for evidence of such but found nothing to support his claim.
When we asked him why he suspected his neighbors, he calmly stated that the “voices” told him. It turned out the voices were keeping him awake that night – much like they do every night. My partner knew what we were dealing with about 12 seconds into our encounter. It took me a bit longer given my novice status.
We went on to ask him what the voices were saying so we could determine if he was a danger to himself or someone else. As it turned out, the voices were just implicating his neighbors.
I recall being astounded by the way the man communicated articulately and with great clarity and detail. I always expected the mentally ill to resemble the cast of characters with whom I’d become familiar after reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” in Mrs. Coleman’s 7th grade English class. The man seemed credible and nothing like I envisioned.
My partner retrieved a ball cap that was sitting on a shelf and approached the man. He told him that he was going to place the hat atop of his head and it was going to stop the voices. I froze as the man acquiesced and bent down to receive the hat. My partner placed it gently on his head and in a soothing voice said, “See? It works!” The man remained quiet for several seconds as though he was straining to listen for the voices and finally smiled.
That was my first encounter with a mentally ill person on the job. After that, I became a self-proclaimed expert in the field. All police officers are. Over the years, I’ve made foil helmets to block the voices, talked people into ambulances (one who ran down the street naked because he thought the devil set his clothes on fire), and I’ve watched family members beg the police “to do something”.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 6% of the population suffers from serious mental illness (1 in 17 people). And by serious, I mean the kind where a person’s disorder drives them to hurt someone else. Sometimes it’s apparent as in my movie reference, but many times, you would never guess someone has mental illness.
This figure did not shock me given the amount of calls of that nature to which police officers respond. The man who heard voices was not a threat to us. But those calls put a strain on police manpower because of the time it takes to determine that the purported crime is not real and the creative problem-solving it takes to handle the incident so it doesn’t escalate.
Mental illness poses a significant problem for first responders and for the community as a whole and we have to try and come up with solutions together that help the patient and keep the public safe. The police can only take someone into custody for a mental health evaluation if they are danger to themselves or someone else.
By then, it’s often too late.