Availability of mental health services impacts police officer actions

Treatment Advocacy Center: Research of the Month

The role of police in ensuring public safety is a topical issue for policy debates in today’s society. Concerns around the appropriateness of law enforcement in responding to mental health crisis calls are chief among these policy discussions. New research published this month in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology suggests that the availability of mental health services has an impact on police officers’ actions in response to a mental health call for service, such as their choice to arrest, divert to mental health treatment or informally resolve on the scene.

The authors of the study surveyed 141 law enforcement officers across the United States to test the hypothesis that outcomes of mental health calls may be more related to available resources in the area than the officer’s previous training. The authors tested officer behavior by providing the survey respondent with a scenario depicted in a vignette and asking the officer questions around their likelihood of acting in different ways in response to the vignette. The researchers found that officers who had more area resources, such as a larger number of outpatient mental health facilities, were significantly less likely to respond by arresting an individual in a given scenario.

While this study has significant limitations in sample size and the lack of randomization, the findings have important implications: “The biggest policy implication that can be drawn from the study is the importance of having adequate resources available for police officers when they respond to calls for service in which the person has a mental health disorder,” the authors write. “To shift accountability from police officers to the mental health system, as originally designed, both systems need to be well-equipped to handle the change."

Jachimowski, K. G., et al. (2020, July). The impact of mental health resources on police officer action. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.