Problematic Police Interactions When Citizens are Mentally Ill

By Mollie Schneider, Rachel Boyce, Karina Ramos

The people with mental health issues are impacted by the police system differently than people without a mental illness. Our main focus of this research project is to understand how the police view people with mental illness. Due to the way police are initially trained, causes an issue when they are dealing with a mentally ill person. This relates to sociology because Sociologist concur that mental health is a big issue in general and an even bigger issue when it comes to police encounters with individuals suffering from mental illness.


This study examines the values held by the Omaha Police Department to better understand how they are serving the needs of the people with mental illness. The first step to conducting this research study was to look through The Omaha World Herald, using keywords like Police, Mental Health, Interactions, Police Interactions, Police Training with Mental Health, and Police Interactions with Mental Health, where 9 articles were found and analyzed, all the way from 2012 – 2017. Once all 9 articles were read, things that kept getting repeated, like training, interaction, and overreaction were picked out and became the three themes that this study focuses on. Once the three themes were established, the articles were reread focusing mainly on the theme. After the specific data was collected from the 9 articles, the data was then put into a table in order to separate the data by themes.


How the police interact with mental health citizens is a critical point in the criminal justice system. Omaha’s Police Department encounters people with mental health issues on a daily basis (Nelson). For example, during one encounter, police were called to a scene, where a suspicious man was found to be intoxicated, but didn’t show any signs of mental illness. He pointed a gun at police and used his child as a human shield. The police didn’t know, at that time, that he was struggling with a mental illness (O’Brien). People would view these actions as a way that police need to interact more efficiently with the mentally ill.

Police and Omaha citizens can have unpredictable actions when it comes to police encounters (OWH  2017). Many people question what police consider to the most dangerous, when it come to the mental health community. The normal police behavior consists of using “Terry stops” or method of stopping a person and searching them for evidence of a crime. These encounters can often be considered to be harsh and involve physical violence. This police policy has been used as a crime control claim. It is important for police to take a calm approach, when it comes to handling the mentally ill community (Perez).“We have a lot of contact with people with mental illness. It’s becoming a daily thing we deal with.” This daily contact has led police to misunderstand mental health behaviors (Nelson). When police arrive, they determine such things as whether a crime has been committed, if the person has a history of mental illness, and if the person is an immediate threat to themselves or another person.There are an average of four mental health encounters each day in Omaha (Moring). People can connect the police interactions with the mental health issues by evaluating the process that goes through the police and the mentally ill’s mind through proper training. Through doing so, police can get a better grasp on why the mentally ill act in a certain way.

First-Line Responders

As first-line workers, it is important for the police to rely on basic respect, when it comes to encountering anyone, especially the mentally ill. There needs to be better citizen supervision within the community (Grace). Families and schools are an important aspect of this process. Schools and families are connected through counseling services (Duffy). To better understand the mentally ill, police may go on correction visits to experience the reactions and episodes of the mentally ill (Klecker). At the end of the week, officers are tested through mock scenarios by using their de escalation training. According to a survey, research has found that about 70% of officers reported that they didn’t have adequate knowledge of mental illnesses (Klecker). The absence of this training led to the overreaction of police.


What happens when police don’t know what’s going on/Involuntary actions-   Without an evaluation of the situation, police officers often react to the situations between people with mental in a manner that is not treated right. On Jan. 11, 2010, Omaha police officers were reported to a man assaulting his sibling with a kitchen knife. Without the proper call and actions, police officer Martinec shot a man diagnosed with schizophrenia six times. All violations of disability act were broken and affected the officer that shot him. He was charged and not trained properly to know the difference in normal people’s actions and people with a mental illness. (Perez) In most cases, police are trained to continuously say to put weapons down, around this encounter police will identify who they are dealing with by reviewing the person’s body language and change the tone of voice.

Treat mental health as a crime-  When coming across a situation and dealing with a person with a mental health illness, it is harder for police to determine whether or not the person is faking it or if it real because only psychologist can really determine that. Not all the times do they get put behind bars but officers can go out of their to help these types of people. Policemen offer extended care by taken them (as needed) to an emergency room for close observation and even to a local shelter where they can help recovery from the episode taken place. (Winchester;Roseann Moring, C.)  Lack of social interactions can mostly likely increase the rate of mental illness due to isolations. The most common areas of arrest and encounter with the police and a higher rate of mental illness is in the low income and poverty areas. These places are usually targets for drugs and violence.

Tend to act violent/weapons escalates- Police officers are viewed to allows carry weapons for protection because anything going wrong at the proper time.Police officers are trained to know what item to use towards a person with mental illness or just in general. A man with a bipolar disorder and schizophrenia refuse to leave a convenience store because the confrontation he had with the police. He was tased twelve times, dragged by his hair and beat up by the police officers. Bearheels died the next morning. June 11, 2017 (NelsonMara Klecker)  Due to this happening, the officers involved in this situation faced charges and consequences for actions that were taken out for hand.  The officers were all charged differently by what happened and who did what. One officers faced second degree assault charges, the next was ticketed a misdemeanor third degree assault and the other two officers did not handle the the incident properly.

One of the four had the mental illness training. (13, WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER Edition: SRSunrise


Most officers don’t have proper training- Police are advised to act more respectful & Crisis Intervention Team(CIT)

What makes a mentally ill person the most dangerous, is that their reactions to the police are unpredictable, which also makes the officer’s actions unpredictable(POLICING MENTAL HEALTH – Give officers more clarity). Which is why training for police officers to deal with a mentally ill person is so important. Which is also why yelling commands over and over at them isn’t the best way to handle the situation. Police must take a calm approach when handling a mentally ill individual. Omaha police officers are to follow specific procedures when encountering someone who appears to be suffering from a mental health crisis, but after an incident that happened on Jan 11. 2010, after David Roberts’ encounter with the police, Roberts filed a federal lawsuit against 4 officers saying their use of force was excessive and that his rights under the Americans with Disability Act and the Rehabilitation Act were violated, which made people question whether or not the police had the proper training on how to handle a situation like that. Michael Lyman, a Missouri professor and law enforcement expert, said in a March report submitted as part of Roberts lawsuit “A police department with a Crisis Intervention Team structured such as the Omaha Police Department’s is essentially broken, because it fails to provide trained CIT officers when they are needed”(Perez). Police operating procedures state that officers should use a calm tone of voice, remain aware of their body language, avoid an intimidating appearance, give individuals a wide area of personal space, and avoid giving multiple commands, the policy also emphasizes that merely displaying the symptoms of a mental illness is not a criminal offense.(Perez) The primary goal is to de escalate the situation, by talking calmly and keeping their distance, officers are decreasing the chance of the situation getting out of control and because every situation involving a person going through a mental health crisis is different, if officers are able to keep calm, they can evaluate the situation more thoroughly, and come out with the best conclusion.

Who and when to call for help & doing a better job of documenting their encounters with mentally ill

It’s not clear whether officers have a strong grasp of who and when to call for help. For police, every encounter with a human being is different, which makes every encounter unpredictable, volatile work. Which is why the Omaha Police Department needs to do a better job of documenting when officers encounter people in crisis. The number of formal reports filed appears artificially low. Shortcomings in training would be easier to identify with accurate data(13, WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER). Police officers are often the first official helpers to reach someone in crisis. A June 5th encounter between Zachary Bearwheels, a 29 year old Oklahoma man, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and police resulted in his death. Yet 911 remains a lifeline in a fractured mental health system in which Omaha Police find themselves de facto social workers who must balance police training with a friendly bedside manner. “We have a lot of contact with people with mental illness. It’s becoming a daily thing we deal with.” said officer Angela Sands, “We are trained to slow our brains down, but there is only so much you can do when you have a split-second decision- and everybody will spend the next few years analyzing what you did in that split second”(NelsonMara Klecker). Police are not counselors, they are originally trained to be assertive, and strict, not calm and respectful which is what makes an encounter with an Emotionally Disturbed Person(EDP) more challenging. If a weapon is involved, the police are trained to treat the weapon as if it’s loaded, and neutralizing the threat becomes the first priority. Which is why Co-responding police mental health programs are increasing used to respond to an ‘emotionally disturbed persons’. Sometimes individuals experiencing a serious mental illness are sometimes arrested because police officers don’t see any other option. The Co-responding police mental health programs are helpful because they allow the officer to have another outlet when dealing with a mentally ill person, it allows the officers to reach out to someone with the right training on how to deal with a mentally ill person so that they person gets the correct treatment they need instead of being thrown in jail.

Mental health in the criminal justice system is a topic that has been talked about a lot recently in Omaha. More specifically if police officers are trained or not, and if not, other ways that can be helpful when dealing with an encounter of a person with a mental illness. Police are normally trained to be assertive, repetitively yelling loud commands over and over again and are also trained to treat a weapons as loaded, but all that aggressive, loud confrontation usually doesn’t work when they encounter a person with a mental illness.
Works Cited

Grace, Erin. “‘SO MUCH CONTACT WITH THOSE IN CRISIS.’” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 9 July 2017,

Klecker, Mara. “Training Helps Officers Respond to Mentally Ill in Crisis – Omaha Has 27 Percent of      Its Force Trained and Wants to Provide Another Course.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 10 Sept. 2017,

Nelson, Andrew J. “Police as ‘Front-Line Responders’ to Mentally Ill in Crisis – Experts Weigh in on Training, Use of Tasers during Encounters That Are Becoming a Daily Occurrence for Many Officers.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 11 June 2017,

Nelson, Andrew J. “POLICY CHANGES CONSIDERED – Since Late 2016, Seven in Police or Correctional Custody Have Died – Officers Need to Know How to Handle People with Mental Illness, Says Mother of One Who Died.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 8 July 2017,

O’Brien, Maggie. “No Offers to Surrender – Suicidal Man Is Killed after Pointing Weapons at Police Officers.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, Mar. 2013,

Perez, Juan. “Armed and Mentally Ill Pose Dilemma for Police – Though Omaha Police Are Trained in How to Deal with People in Mental Crisis, ‘Use of Force’ Procedures Prevail.”Shibboleth Authentication Request, 9 Dec. 2012,

“POLICING MENTAL HEALTH – Give Officers More Clarity.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 18 Sept. 2017,

Skelton, Alissa. “Omahans Stress Diversity, Combating Bias for Police.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, 2015,

Winchester;Roseann Moring, C. (2014, Apr 20). Police getting more options in addressing mental illness. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 04A..