When I first started my career in law enforcement I had an old state trooper who befriended me and would provide me with some sage advice when the opportunity presented itself. Back then I was working at an agency that had only one officer on duty at a time, so I always welcomed our conversations. Not only did I get something out of it, but it also meant that there was another cop nearby if I needed some help.
His wisdom mainly came from personal experiences, and for the most part he was set in his old ways with very little time or patience for treading lightly. He gave me such gems as “a badge can get you a lot of women, but it only takes one woman to take your badge” as a warning against falling prey to what he referred to as “holster sniffers”. He also boiled police work and the problems we respond to into the three B’s, booze (alcohol), bitches (infidelity), and bucks (financial problems).
My old trooper friend surely did not coin these phrases by himself, especially since I’ve heard them from others through the years. I’ve encountered a few officers along the way that would have benefited from the “holster sniffer” warning. I’ve been happily married to Mrs. Donut since I started this line of work and she’s yet to figure out that she married down, so the “badge bunnies” have been of absolutely no concern to me. Yes ma’am, I heard you say that you love a man in uniform. So does my wife. Now go away.
The three B’s do certainly play a major role in a lot of our calls for service. Sometimes they get combined into a domestic dispute involving all three B’s when both parties are drunk, someone is accusing a significant other of cheating, and they are experiencing the stresses related to financial problems. Each scenario is unique, and I won’t downplay the dangers associated with responding to domestic disputes, but the three B’s obviously aren’t the only sources of problems that we deal with on a regular basis.
Add in drug use and greed and we’re a little closer to summarizing the majority of the things that create the problems that we confront on a regular basis. However, we’re missing one major factor, and it’s one that is increasingly more difficult to deal with because there are so few resources available to combat it. Mental illness.
While mental illness can manifest itself in the form of addiction, I’m not talking about the garden variety drunk or drug addict. The spectrum is huge, and if you’ve ever looked at a copy of the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM-5, you’ll understand.
I can vividly remember taking a school field trip to a state-run mental institution back in my formative years. I guess my school wanted to be sure we understood that we didn’t have it so rough or something, but it made a lasting impact on me. As a teen, it was difficult to see humans who didn’t function. I felt bad for the patients and their families. I empathized about how difficult it would be in either of their places. I wondered how the staff members were able to deal with these struggles on a daily basis. I worried that some of the patients had been forgotten by their families.
When institutions like the one I visited were shuttered after mental illness was “decriminalized”, the folks who once had a place where they could receive constant treatment no longer had it available. Private institutions cost a lot of money, and many folks cannot afford to pay those kinds of prices to house loved ones who suffer from extreme mental illness. When the state removed itself from the mental institution realm, it also became very difficult to have an adult committed to a private institution against his or her will.
Instead, a lot of these people ended up on the street because they couldn’t make it with family members or on their own. I encounter them regularly now, and I do my best to determine if a person who is acting “out of their mind” is drunk, high, or mentally ill. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult, especially if they are lashing out violently and causing a disturbance in a public place. If that’s the case, unfortunately we often end up in a physical struggle only to find that the reason the individual isn’t complying with our commands is simply because he or she does not have the ability to do so.
Other times, we find an individual with a zombie-like gait in the middle of the street at zero dark thirty in a downpour having an argument with himself, seemingly unaware of the headlights and spotlight that are now fixated on him. Our laws don’t provide a remedy for this kind of person who is under the influence of nothing more than a psychosis. We can only do the best with what we have and try to find a better place for him to go. If he is unwilling, he is free to leave and remain in the rain as long as he stays out of the street.
Encountering an extremely depressed person who has decided that there is nothing worth living for is an unfortunately frequent occurrence for those of us in law enforcement. The manner in which they make their attempts, or reach out for help varies. Sometimes we can help, other times it’s too late. Some force us to take their lives for them by placing us in jeopardy with a deadly weapon.
After over a decade of war, we now deal with veterans who are experiencing complications with PTSD as well. Sometimes we are able to deescalate situations fairly quickly without a physical scuffle. It’s hard to be a type A personality military veteran who suddenly has an onset of emotion that can’t be controlled. I struggled with unexpected loud noises and had issues with certain smells when I first got home from my time in a combat zone, but luckily I was able to move past it. Some aren’t so lucky.
Aside from the potential for physical danger posed by the extremely mentally ill, there is a fear that lurks beneath the surface that one day I’ll grow old and begin the horrible mental transition into a life with dementia. In my dealings with these folks, I always walk away feeling helpless because I have nothing to offer them. I may be able to return them home, or to provide some manner of comfort, but I do not have a fix for what really ails them.
I cannot imagine the frustration in not being able to remember the people I hold dear. I know how frustrated I get when I walk into a room on task only to arrive at my destination without any idea what I set out to do. Thankfully it only happens once in a great while now. If it was my way of life, I don’t know how I would be able to do it.
When I went on the field trip to the state-run mental institution I had no idea that I would end up in a career that deals so closely with the mentally ill on a regular basis. I still feel empathetic to those who are experiencing these problems, but I’ve learned to compartmentalize them with the other sights and sounds that I do not enjoy. I have learned that I can only help to a small extent by trying to find some resources for them that may be able to help in the long run.
While medication helps some of these folks, it often makes them feel ill or off kilter. Depending on their own particular psychosis, they may have no intention of ever taking the drugs they were prescribed after they leave a doctor’s care. If the prescriptions aren’t taken on time and in the correct order, they may have no effect at all. Then the spiral commences and leads them back to us in some form or another to perpetuate the cycle.
It may seem crass to say it, but many of these folks would benefit from being housed against their will in a state-run mental institution. It’s not “criminalizing” mental illness. It’s providing a safe environment for them amongst people with proper training available to assist them. I’m no psychiatrist or psychologist. I’ll continue to do what I can, as will my brothers and sisters in blue. Unfortunately we aren’t geared toward it, nor are we properly supported with available resources.
It’s an issue that isn’t addressed very often. We only hear about it after some cop somewhere has to shoot a mentally ill individual because they imposed a lethal threat or injures a mentally ill person in a physical confrontation. The family may have called for assistance with the person to bring the officer there because they couldn’t handle the situation, but they’ll surely be on the news calling for “justice” after the fact.
We dedicate training time every year toward dealing with individuals with mental illness who are in crisis. It barely scratches the surface and only serves as a reminder that there is a lot more work to be done.
If you know and love someone with an extreme mental illness, I feel for you. It’s a difficult journey and a tough life to dedicate so much time and effort to another person who doesn’t seem to be making any improvement. I’ve spoken to many a family member who is at wits end while serving as a caretaker to a relative with mental illness and I know it can be very rough at times.
I’m sure my old state trooper friend is retired now, and while I don’t miss working shifts as the sole officer on duty in my jurisdiction, I do miss his laid back, matter of fact way of dealing with the world. I have no doubt that his input on our dealings with the mentally ill would be entertaining and thought provoking. And vulgar.
As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” When Alice responded, “How do you know I’m mad?” The Cat said, “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.” Maybe we’re all just a little mad after all.
It’s time to go patrol the Donut…