Mental Health and Law Enforcement

by Officer Jim Pendergast – Lodi Police Department

When I began my career in law enforcement over fifteen years ago, I worked as a police officer for the Stockton State Hospital which was located on California Street in downtown Stockton. It was during that time that many changes were occurring within the State of California involving the mentally ill population. Numerous state hospitals were closing and all of the seriously ill people were being transferred to other facilities. Some of the less afflicted individuals were sent to half way homes and board and care facilities and some were allowed to live on their own.

It was my experience that many of the mentally ill had a hard time adjusting to their new living environment thus a lot of those people came into contact with law enforcement, often during a serious crisis. This created a very difficult time for police officers, the majority of whom only had a small eight hour block of training in dealing with the mentally ill while the officers were in the police academy.

I remember seeing many mentally ill people being brought into mental health by different law enforcement agencies within the county. Several times the mentally ill person was released from the facility before the police officers finished their paperwork and got back out on the beat. This created a lot of tension and resentment between the police agencies and the mental health system.

Around this time I was in my third year of graduate school and I decided to focus my studies on  the relationship between mental health and police. What I found through many hours of research, interviews and group discussions was that  police officers did not fully understand the policies, procedures and protocols that mental health officials had to adhere to.  Similarly I also found that the numerous mental health employees I interviewed did not understand many of the procedures in place at the police department. In addition, some employees did not understand the responsibilities of a police officer during an average day working patrol.

All in all, both agencies saw these negative issues and worked very hard through department liaisons to strengthen their relationship. They utilized in-house trainings.  Officers and mental health employees took time to get to know each other and, through communication and feedback, their relationship improved a great deal.

As the liaison for our department, I know the Lodi Police Department values the relationship we have with San Joaquin County Mental Health. We continue to train at the same time we communicate and encourage feedback from our officers after they interact with employees from mental health. We also utilize them and their resources when we encounter people who are dealing with a mental health crisis.

In my next article I will share some of those resources available from San Joaquin County Mental Health that police officers of the Lodi Police Department use when dealing with people in crisis. In addition, these resources can also aid many families seeking help with a family member diagnosed with a mental illness.


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