Encountering the mentally ill not uncommon for first responders

Law enforcement officers often encounter cases of mental illness as first responders.
Photo by Kristian Thomas

By Kristian Thomas
Outlook Writer

What transpired minutes after state trooper Gregory Johnson got off work was a scenario that had played out countless times for the officer when he is on duty.

So obviously he quickly realized the horrified woman approaching him was in desperate need of help. She was being pursued by a man that she didn’t know. He was charging towards her with a machete.

Johnson approached the man. They exchanged words – enough for Johnson to realize he had work to do.
“We continued to dialogue so I could create a trust that I wasn’t going to hurt him,” Johnson said. “I was focused on talking him down although I had access to my weapon if I needed it, but was praying to God I didn’t. I called for backup and once they arrived we took him into custody.”

Although Johnson’s encounter was happenstance, it’s not uncommon for first responders to deal with similar situations every day. Often they walk into situations not knowing if they are dealing with someone just wanting to cause chaos or simply acting out some form of mental illnesses.

Most law enforcement officers are trained for the role of first responders, said Lt. Grady Jordan, a spokesman for the Leon County Sheriff’s Department. They’re especially trained to handle the unpredictable.

“Anytime we go into a call or situation there are a tremendous amount of unknowns and mental illness is one of those unknowns,” Jordan said. “We are trained to use interpersonal skills in how to communicate and talk to people. A lot of that you can talk about in a classroom, but a lot of it is on the job experience.”

While responding to what might be considered a crime, officers also have to exercise judgment to figure out the type of case they are dealing with, Jordan said.

“If I have someone in some mental health trauma and they steal a pack of gum at a Circle K, the mental health issue would trump stealing the gum,” Jordan said. “If I had someone in a mental crisis and they committed a homicide, we might have to take them into custody, take them to the hospital but we would stay there and monitor them; and then that becomes a judicial issue.”

Approximately 2 million people who suffer some form of mental illnesses end up in jail each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Eighty-three percent of inmates with a mental illness usually don’t have access to treatment.

In many cases, they simply don’t know that resources are available to help them. However, some often turn to a law enforcement agency.

“When that person is aware enough we will transport them to a mental health facility, a hospital or Apalachee Center—some places like that,” said Jordan.

The Apalachee Center is one of three major mental health facilities in Tallahassee. The other two are located at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and Capital Regional Behavioral Health Centers.

Just like first responders, individuals dealing with a mentally ill person should also take a calm approach to avoid raising their anxiety level, said Dr. Jay Reeves, CEO of Apalachee Center.

“The folks who work as emergency responders know this (because) they have been trained in general, particularly acutely important with people who have mental illness,” Reeves said. “One of the primary jobs of first responders is to try and take the stress level down; speaking in a calm voice, not making any sudden movements, there are certain kinds of body language you want to avoid.”