How Trauma-Informed Policing Could’ve Helped Save Gabby Petito, And So Many Others

By Heather Kent, Registered Psychotherapist and Trauma Recovery Specialist

Due to a number of factors common to most of North America – such as cuts to long-term psychiatric beds, improvements in treatment, and the philosophy of integration – more people with a mental illness live in the community. Unfortunately, community supports have not expanded proportionately to make up for the loss of institutional services or for the increased need brought about by an expanding population. Existing crisis response services (crisis lines, mental health teams, hospital emergency wards, for example) are limited in scope and are often not well integrated. Reductions in hospital beds and services result in hospital admission only for those in acute crisis, and, even then, only for very short periods of time. 

These factors and the general lack of understanding and awareness about mental illness result in a significant increase of interactions between people with mental illness in crisis and police. While most of these interactions are minor in nature and are resolved uneventfully, there are unfortunately a few that result in significant negative outcomes, such as the much-publicized case of Gaby Petito’s death in the United States. Whenever preventable tragedies such as this takes place, one of the most frequent recommendations that are put forth from external reviews is that police officers should be provided with education and training/learning in order to give them the skills and knowledge necessary to interact adaptively with people with mental illness.

Yet, despite this consistent and repeated recommendation to police departments at all levels, it appears that very little has actually been done to implement this recommendation in any significant way – in the U.S., Canada, and beyond. Take Devon LaFleur, for example: a 30-year-old struggling with bipolar disorder, he went missing on March 4, 2016. His father contacted law enforcement to notify police of his son’s mental illness and tendency towards violence. After learning that LaFleur had allegedly robbed a bank and was on the run, Toronto police tracked down and fatally shot him during a confrontation.

In many instances where mental illness is concerned, police officers tend to respond too quickly with force, sometimes without probable cause. In an analysis conducted by the Washington Post, U.S. police officers shot 124 people who showed some sign of mental or emotional distress in 2015. The Post explained that, for the majority of these crimes, the police were not called for reports of criminal activity. As in LaFleur’s case, police were contacted by “relatives, neighbors or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically.”

It is fair to say that police are, by default, becoming the informal ‘first responders’ of our mental health system, and they are playing this role without the necessary resources or support to carry it out properly. The results of this situation for people with mental illness can be long delays in receiving treatment, unnecessary trauma, violent incidents, and criminalization that could have been prevented if care had been received earlier from the mental health system. Estimates of the proportion of untreated mental illness in the criminal justice system range between 15 and 40%.

So how can this massive systemic problem be addressed? What can and must be done in order to change the outcomes of these interactions between police and people struggling with mental illness?

Mandatory trauma-informed education and training would be a logical place to start.  Police officers need to know how to handle individuals who display different types of mental illnesses. The Washington Post analysis stated that the most extreme cases of mentally ill people causing a disturbance were schizophrenic individuals, and those who displayed suicidal tendencies, or had some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, instead of teaching practical skills like learning how to identify individuals with mental-health conditions, many of the “educational workshops” provided to police forces only consist of general descriptions about psychological terms and concepts. This is hugely inadequate and does nothing to prepare officers for how to identify symptoms of mental illness in real-world situations.

However, it is not all doom and gloom: in some U.S. states, crisis intervention team training (CIT) is being implemented to help officers identify mental illness and determine the best course of action. CIT consists of a 40-hour training program for police forces that educates officers on mental-health issues and medications, and teaches about mental-health services in the local community. CIT also teaches methods that help de-escalate heated situations by encouraging officers to allow vulnerable individuals to vent their frustrations—methods that could have been useful both in Petito and LaFleur’s case to reduce the risk of violence from both the police and offender. So far, this program has been considered effective by the police departments using it.

So what does Trauma-Informed Policing look like?

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery.
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in those involved within the system.
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

Here are a few basic tips on what is needed to shift an interaction between police and person like Gaby Petitio:

  • Engage the person, develop rapport
  • Provide a calm, soothing environment
  • Give undivided, unhurried attention
  • Give as much control & choice as possible
  • Validate concerns as understandable & normal
  • Allow a support person to be present, when possible

Having worked in a community-partnership model myself when I worked as a Child and Family Therapist for a Child and Youth Mental Health agency in a remote town, I cannot stress enough the importance of law enforcement partnering with local mental health agencies. Although the task of identifying mentally ill individuals can be daunting, these training programs are a step toward preventing injustices for individuals like Petito and LaFleur. Providing officers with appropriate training not only improves their ability to handle job stress, but may also provide those with mental illness with a chance to receive appropriate treatment.

Heather Kent is a Registered Psychotherapist and Trauma Recovery Specialist with an expertise in PTSD, who helps restore healthy futures for her clients. She is the co-author of the newly released book, ‘Wellness Wisdom’, and the #1 Amazon bestselling author of the books ‘Heal From Your Narcissist Ex’ and ‘I Left My Toxic Relationship – Now What?’, which use elements of her own story intertwined with clinically proven therapy modalities. Surviving an abusive relationship herself, as well as witnessing the PTSD of several of her students from inner city communities where she previously taught, Heather decided to change her career path and began her training in psychology, focusing on trauma assessment and treatment. Her goal is to help people move past the feelings of shame, brokenness, and paralyzing fear through her integrative therapeutic approach to counseling, ultimately helping her clients to live well. 

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