In towns and cities across the United States, police officers find themselves playing dual roles as law enforcers and psychiatric social workers. County jails and state prisons have become de facto mental institutions; in New York, for instance, a surge of stabbings, beatings and other violence at Rikers Island has been attributed in part to an influx of mentally ill inmates, who respond erratically to discipline and are vulnerable targets for other prisoners. “Frequent fliers,” as mentally ill inmates who have repeated arrests are known in law enforcement circles, cycle from jail cells to halfway houses to the streets and back.
The problem has gotten worse in recent years, according to mental health and criminal justice experts, as state and local governments have cut back on mental health services for financial reasons. And with the ubiquity of video cameras — both in ordinary citizens’ hands and on police officer’s helmets and in cruisers — the public can more readily see what is going on and respond.
“I think that this issue hits every city, every part of the country where you have people who are walking on the street who normally would have been under some kind of treatment or institutionalized,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit that in 2012 released a report calling for minimizing the use of force by the police in situations involving mental illness.