Should You Call the Cops When Someone Is Mentally Ill?

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 13, 2014 8:52 AM

When a mentally ill person is not receiving the proper care or medication, it may be necessary to call the cops to intervene.

Individuals suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorders are not easily calmed down or treated by average civilians, even though they may have their best interests in mind. In many cases, calling the police may be the best option.

So how should you deal with calling the cops when someone is mentally ill?

Tips for Keeping the Situation Calm

It's unfortunate, but often those shot and killed by the police are suffering from mental illnesses. San Francisco's KQED reports that more than half of those fatally shot by the San Francisco Police Department from 2005 to 2013 had mental illnesses.

Keeping that in mind, here are some tips to consider when calling police on someone who's mentally ill:

  • Stress to the 911 operator that the mentally ill person needs help and is not dangerous;
  • When officers arrive, don't let them come to their own conclusions -- repeat what you said to the 911 operator;
  • Do not attempt to confront or restrain the mentally ill person, as it may agitate him or her; and
  • Don't attempt to talk a person out of his or her delusions or hallucinations.

Ultimately, you may not be able to control what kind of force police use to restrain a mentally ill person, and they may even open fire if necessary.

What Police May Do to Help Mentally Ill Persons

Hopefully the police will not resort to deadly force to restrain a mentally ill person, and there are several non-lethal ways law enforcement can help. These include:

  • Placing the person in a psychiatric hold. In most states, a mentally ill person can be placed under psychiatric observation in a mental hospital for a period of up to 72 hours against his or her will. In California, this is called a "5150" hold.
  • Contacting the person's family. Once identified, a mentally ill person's family can be contacted by police, who can potentially have the person declared incompetent.
  • Confiscating any weapons. Police will likely confiscate weapons found on a mentally ill person, keeping them from hurting others or him or herself.

Hopefully if everyone keeps cool, the mentally ill can get help without being injured or killed by police.

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