The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice


Gary Howell


There currently exists a widespread and unacceptable risk of violence between law enforcement personnel and mentally ill suspects. The point of contact between law enforcement and the mentally ill has evolved over the last fifty years and can trace its origins to deinstitutionalization. Deinstitutionalization aimed to close centralized, state mental health institutions in favor of decentralized, community-based mental health care facilities. Deinstitutionalization, however, created a number of consequences for the mentally ill and law enforcement. For example, in the years since deinstitutionalization, an excessive number of homeless mentally ill persons and their families have had little or no access to the care and treatment they need. The consequences of deinstitutionalization are increasingly evident in the news, and more importantly, in the lives of those touched by the violence caused by the rational application of laws to the irrational behavior of the mentally ill. As a result, the dark frontier, a place where reason and rule of law are twisted by the perplexing behavior of the mentally ill, has emerged. The dark frontier violates our sense of justice and disrupts our personal realities when we see the mentally ill collide with society’s reason and rule of law. This risk is rooted in a lack of law enforcement training in appropriately engaging the mentally ill in high-risk situations.  Therefore, changing the way law enforcement is trained to cope with the mentally ill is the first step to a different, more productive outcome.  Without adequate training and organizational support of law enforcement personnel, the pain and suffering of some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society will continue.

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St. Mary's University School of Law