Mental Illness, Police Use of Force, and Citizen Injury

Date01 June 2017
Published date01 June 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Mental Illness, Police
Use of Force, and
Citizen Injury
Michael T. Rossler
William Terrill
Police departments are increasingly becoming the primary entity for managing inci-
dents involving persons with mental illness, thereby leading to calls for additional
research. Drawing on a multicity use-of-force research project, the current inquiry
examines whether citizens displaying signs of mental illness are subjected to higher
levels of police use of force, and whether they are more likely to be injured, con-
trolling for a host of relevant predictors. The findings show that officers use higher
levels of force on persons with mental illness, but such citizens are not at an
enhanced risk of injury. The policy and research implications of the findings are
police, mental illness, use of force, injury
Police of‌f‌icers play a varied role in society, serving citizens in tasks ranging from
crime f‌ighting to order maintenance to service-related functions. Increasingly,
of‌f‌icers are being asked to manage persons with mental illness (PMI; Borum,
Deane, Steadman, & Morrissey, 1998; Fuller, 2012; Gur, 2010; Mulvey & White,
2014). Deinstitutionalization policies coupled with a relative reduction in mental
health spending have increasingly made the police a f‌irst and last resort for issues
surrounding PMI (Mulvey & White, 2014; Teplin, 1984). Amid the shift of
mental illness from a public health problem to a demand on the police,
Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA
School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael T. Rossler, Illinois State University, Campus Box 5250, Normal, IL 61790-0001, USA.
Police Quarterly
2017, Vol. 20(2) 189–212
!The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611116681480
administrators (e.g., police chiefs) are expressing concern that of‌f‌icers lack the
requisite experience or training to properly manage and deescalate encounters
involving PMI (Kerr, Morabito, & Watson, 2010; Martinez, 2010). Moreover,
the expansion of access to police behavior via cell phone and dashboard or body-
camera footage has brought increased attention to these concerns as well. Such
technology has led to increasing news media coverage documenting incidents
with PMI involving serious injuries and death (Al Hajal, 2014; Antlf‌inger, 2014;
Hallman, 2014), thereby decreasing police legitimacy while increasing civil liti-
gation (Cordner, 2006; Fyfe, 2000; Kerr et al., 2010).
To date, there has been limited empirical inquiry examining the relationship
between citizens with mental illness, use of force, and citizen injury, which has
led to calls for additional research in this area (Kaminski, Digiovanni, & Downs,
2004; Kerr et al., 2010). Moreover, policing scholars have expressed particular
interest in research that can adequately control for potential contributing factors
(e.g., citizen resistance and drug–alcohol inf‌luence), beyond mental illness, when
assessing citizen injuries (Kerr et al., 2010). Further, the limited research thus far
has been unable to consistently demonstrate whether of‌f‌icers are more punitive
and aggressive, or more empathetic, toward PMI (Mulvey & White, 2014;
Novak & Engel, 2005).
Drawing upon a multicity study examining of‌f‌icer use of force, the current
inquiry seeks to further clarify the relationship between citizens displaying signs
of mental illness, of‌f‌icer force levels, and citizen injury. Adding to the existing
literature, the present study uses multivariate modeling techniques to account for
the inf‌luence of citizen resistance, drug or alcohol inf‌luence, of‌f‌icer force level, as
well as a host of other relevant control variables. In doing so, we isolate the
ef‌fects of mental illness on citizen injury from confounding explanations, a valu-
able contribution to the policing and mental illness literature.
Literature Review
There are two primary theoretical perspectives to explain how the police may
respond to citizens displaying signs of mental illness. The f‌irst centers around
VanMaanen’s (1978) asshole description and has been used to forward the pre-
diction that of‌f‌icers will be more lenient and understanding toward PMI, par-
ticularly at lower levels of citizen resistance (Johnson, 2011; Mulvey & White,
2014). The basic argument of‌fered by VanMaanen is that of‌f‌icers judge a person
to be an asshole (i.e., worthy of an arrest or police force) when the person is both
aware that their behavior is undesirable and able to behave in a manner other
than that which is deemed undesirable by police. Johnson (2011) argues that
because PMI are viewed by of‌f‌icers as not having control of their behavior (i.e.,
mental illness prevents behaving in a manner deemed appropriate) that of‌f‌icers
may show leniency for PMI compared with those without mental illness. Thus,
lower levels of force are used and injury is less likely in incidents involving PMI.
190 Police Quarterly 20(2)

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