Skip to main content

Mental Health

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Compassion by Law Enforcers

More Common than May Be Expected

Frank G. Sterle, Jr

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), pp. 24-26

The police, and the justice system as a whole, are reputed to criminalize rather than recommend treatment for people with mental illness who are suspected and/or convicted of having committed a crime. There are, however, noteworthy instances of compassion by police toward people with mental illness, even though they have indeed committed crimes.

For example, there’s Jordan.* He was arrested by store security after shoplifting a large bottle of extra­strength, off­the­shelf painkillers, as well as six bottles of 20­tablet, store-shelf sleeping­aid pills. Two police officers escorted him to his residence; they said they needed to see some identification, which Jordan was not carrying with him. Granted, his hands were unnecessarily and uncomfortably cuffed behind his back as the police officers escorted him out of the store—possibly to make the experience disturbing enough to deter Jordan from repeating such an offence. However, Jordan says that even the store security man was quite sympathetic when he learned that Jordan was under the care of a psychiatrist and was consuming large quantities of the stolen sleeping aid (20 to 30 extra­strength tablets at a time) in an attempt to relieve his chronic anxiety, among other mental illnesses. Jordan was told the store would not charge him because he was under a psychiatrist’s care. And the police, after removing the handcuffs from his wrists, said they would not charge him, but insisted he tell his psychiatrist about the incident.

Then there’s Dan,* who was stopped by police after doing an ‘eat and run’ at a restaurant. Now it should be known that Dan is normally not in the least a thief; indeed, he’s the type who would rather give away $100 that belonged to him than take $50 that was not his. Dan was in the midst of a schizophrenic episode, and was so ill at the time that he left his vehicle in some deserted Burnaby back alley, where it was completely stripped down for parts by thieves. Dan had been so ill he could not recall, even after his illness was treated, where he’d left his vehicle. However, instead of charging him with theft, the police, seeing that Dan was mentally ill and untreated for that illness, took him to the local hospital. Police are also known to assist people with mental illness even when a crime has not been committed: When the police spotted Dan sleeping on the sidewalk, they helped him phone his worried mother.

Interestingly and encouragingly, a 2003 story in the Kingston Whig-Standard reported that, according to a study by Queen’s University professor and psychologist Dorothy Cotton, Canadian police are “more understanding and benevolent toward people with mental illness than [are] the general public.”1

Cotton had 150 officers, from Kingston, Ontario, eastern Ontario Provincial Police detachments and Port Moody in British Columbia, complete a questionnaire that was designed to show whether a police officer could be categorized as “authoritarian, socially benevolent, socially restrictive or oriented towards community integration.” Officers were also asked about the role of police in working with people who are mentally ill. Results showed that 80% of those surveyed feel the mentally ill are “‘far less dangerous than most people suppose,’” 94% think society should have a more tolerant attitude toward people with mental illness, and 93% believe the mentally ill should not be denied their individual rights.1

According to the article, Cotton compared her findings to a 1981 survey of the general public, in which citizens were asked the same questions Cotton asked the police officers. Cotton believes society’s attitudes haven’t changed much since 1981. And, she says: “Society at large is extremely uncomfortable with mental illness... We still won’t talk about [having] them. The good news is that the police are not the problem, and that’s exciting and heartening to see.”1

Cotton, apparently, was somewhat surprised to find that police are more protective of people with mental illness than the average person [is]. She is quoted as saying: “The type of people who become cops in the first place are people who are generally concerned with the welfare of society and keeping people safe...Before, I had much of the attitude that I think most people do, that the police are bullies. Now that I’ve done a lot of work with them, I would never say that.”1

Like Dan and Jordan, I have experienced the compassion of police. As a young man, I committed a fairly serious though non-violent crime. But I, too, was shown compassion by my arresting officer, especially when he learned of my mental illness. I compensated my victim and did not have to undergo the intimidating experience of facing a criminal court judge—thanks to that police officer. 

About the author
Frank edits two community newsletters: Community Connection, published by the South Surrey branch of Canadian Mental Health Association; and Whale Tales, put out by Whale House, a clubhouse operated by OPTIONS: Services to Communities. Frank lives in White Rock, BC
  1. Fitzpatrick, M. (2003, January 23). Police more understanding than public about mental illness, new study finds. Kingston Whig-Standard, p. 1.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.