Police officer attitudes and use of discretion in situations involving the mentally ill. The need to narrow the focus

Int J Law Psychiatry. Jan-Feb 1999;22(1):23-35. doi: 10.1016/s0160-2527(98)00014-4.


Research to date has very effectively highlighted the fact that the mentally ill are vulnerable to systematic criminalization. The reasons cited for this range from decreasing mental health resources, to restrictive civil commitment statutes, to increased numbers of mentally ill citizens in the community as a result of deinstitutionalization. However, the research has also shown that the presence of a criminalization phenomenon is not yet generalizable. The prevailing research emphasizes a macro-level approach, using either archival data or large groups of police-citizen contacts without regard for factors intrinsic to the police-citizen exchange. This article examined two such variables (police-citizen contact type and police officer type) to illustrate the need to narrow the focus in the research. We contend that our emphasis moves the criminalization debate forward and helps provide a more comprehensive understanding of the interaction between the police and the mentally ill. Further, we submit that by controlling for these two variables, research findings will more likely be generalizable and replicable.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude*
  • Deinstitutionalization
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Persons with Mental Disabilities / psychology*
  • Police*