Tolerance and Acceptance in Criminal Justice
By Sarah Abbott, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of Jail Diversion Programs at Advocates
The largest mental health facility in the nation isn't a psychiatric facility-it's a jail.
At least 10% of all police encounters across the country involve individuals with a mental health condition. These encounters are fraught with the potential for unnecessary arrests, escalated use of force and officer-involved shootings. Behaviors that are symptomatic of an underlying condition can be interpreted by police officers as threating in nature, as evidence of non-compliance or as active resistance. De-escalating these scenarios quickly and effectively is critical, yet police officers often report feeling unqualified, inadequately trained and without the appropriate resources. The evolution of police and mental health collaborations shows great promise, not only by meeting their goals of preventing unnecessary and costly arrests, but by improving police responses to crisis situations, reducing police use of force and increasing the likelihood of a peaceful resolution. In the current climate of controversial police-involved shootings, and the resulting protests, the promise of these partnerships must be fully realized.
At Cook County Jail (Illinois), an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that least 400,000 inmates, currently behind bars in the United States, suffer from some type of mental illness-this amounts to a population larger than the cities of Cleveland or New Orleans. According to the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, almost half of inmates in the Commonwealth's county jail system have some form of mental illness and at least a quarter of inmates have a serious mental illness. The challenges for individuals with a mental health condition living in a correctional setting are well documented. Solutions, aimed at reducing this overrepresentation, have proved to be more elusive.
Police officers are often the first point of contact for individuals in a psychiatric, emotional or substance-fueled crisis. In cities and towns across the state, police are responding to individuals with complicated mental health and substance abuse conditions who come to their attention-usually as a result of behavior. When these behaviors fit the criteria of a crime-often a low-level, nuisance offense-the responding officers have the option to arrest. Without available or appropriate resources at their fingertips, or adequate knowledge about what the underlying issues are, the officer may use their discretion and make an arrest. Indeed, an arrest practically guarantees that the individual will be off the street and that community order will be temporarily restored. However, given the minor nature of these charges, the "offender" is often quickly returned to the community, the underlying condition withstanding, or even worsened by their encounter with the criminal justice system.
One community has offered a difference approach. Responding to this frustrating cycle, then-Framingham Deputy Chief of Police Craig Davis* contacted Advocates, a Boston-area human services provider agency, with an idea. He wanted a social worker who could co-respond with officers on 911 and service-related calls. Deputy Chief Davis asked that the clinician be embedded in the Framingham station and be immediately available to help officers de-escalate people in crisis, diverting appropriate individuals away from the criminal justice system and into more appropriate and effective treatment. Deputy Chief Davis suggested that by offering rapid on-scene assessment and access to an array of treatment options, clinicians would be available to offer individual officers an alternative to arrest. Advocates agreed that this partnership had the potential to impact lives in meaningful and tangible ways and in 2003, I was hired as their social worker and the Framingham Jail Diversion Program (JDP) was born.
The primary goal of the program model is to divert individuals with a mental health condition away from the criminal justice system and towards more appropriate community based treatment. There are many compelling reasons for this. With a criminal record, individuals face considerable barriers to education, housing and employment. Preventing entry into the criminal justice system for those committing low-level offences, is humane, cost effective and essential for recovery.
After many years as the embedded Framingham Police Jail Diversion clinician, in 2008 I assumed the role of program director at Advocates and began replicating the co-responder model in other departments. These programs have been successful at diverting individuals from arrest an average of 75% of the time. More recently, in part in response to the high-profile police involved shootings across the nation, I have been thinking about what impact the embedded clinician model has had on the police environment and culture itself. Has the presence of a jail diversion program changed the culture of the police agencies in which they operate? Since 2011, I have concentrated my scholarly work on investigating this impact.
My preliminary research suggests that officers working in departments with co-responder jail diversion programs report greater tolerance and acceptance of individuals with mental illness living in their communities. These officers more strongly endorse their role in interacting with individuals with a mental illness than their counterparts in non- jail diversion program departments. Although barely scratching the surface of understanding this impact, I am encouraged by these preliminary outcomes and the potential impact of this model on how police departments respond to individuals in crisis. However, more research is needed.
My Criminal Justice students at Lasell have assisted me in my quest for deeper understanding and have been actively engaged in my research. Students have distributed police attitudinal questionnaires at police roll calls, performed data entry and conducted the analysis in Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). This multi-year research project allows our students to engage in a variety of "real world" professional activities, from attending police roll calls to presenting findings to police chiefs and other stakeholders at the end of the project. I love being able to share my passion for jail diversion programming with our students who, in turn, help me evaluate the impact of this work.
In my Police and Society course, my law enforcement colleagues regularly meet and talk with our students about the issues and challenges of "real" police work. Officers debunk the TV depictions of their work and students ask them very candid questions. In a small class setting, it can get very real and no topic is off limits. We discuss the use of force continuum, police/community/race relations and the recent proliferation of police-involved shootings. Students are provided access to authentic case documents that enable them to work together and find solutions to real-life problems. They are exposed to crime scene photography, learn how to fingerprint a crime scene and can experience the differences between a police "interview" and an "interrogation" using role plays first hand. When we actively engage our students in such work, we afford them the unique opportunity to critically examine their beliefs and assumptions in the safety of the classroom.
The ability to integrate my students in my professional work is very satisfying for me as a faculty member. This reinforces my decision to teach at Lasell, an institution that values my professional experience wholeheartedly and whose Connected Learning philosophy encourages and contributes to these deeper and necessary explorations.
*Craig Davis is an adjunct faculty member in Lasell's Criminal Justice Department