The General Public Holds a More Positive Perception of the Police than Do People with Mental Illness

The General Public Holds a More Positive Perception of the Police than Do People with Mental Illness

Forensic-Training-AcademyThe general public holds a more positive perception of the police than do people with mental illness. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2014, Vol. 20, No. 4, 431-442


Police perceptions and contact among people with mental illnesses: Comparisons with a general population survey


Sarah L. Desmarais, North Carolina State University
James D. Livingston , Saint Mary’s University
Caroline L. Greaves, British Columbia Mental Health & Substance Use Services
Kiersten L. Johnson, North Carolina State University
Simon Verdun-Jones, Simon Fraser University
Rick Parent, Simon Fraser University
Johann Brink, British Columbia Mental Health & Substance Use Services


Though studies have surveyed police officers’ perceptions of people with mental illnesses (PMI), few have examined perceptions held by PMI regarding the police, and none have compared them with those held by the general population. This study sought to (a) examine perceptions of police held by PMI, (b) compare them to perceptions held by the general population, and (c) explore whether differences between PMI and general population perceptions are attributable to contact with the police in the past year. We drew data from a survey of 244 PMI and the 2009 Canadian General Social Survey (GSS) (Brennan, 2011). Both surveys administered the same items querying perceptions of and contact with the police in the prior 12 months. GSS participants were individually matched to PMI participants on sociodemographic characteristics (n = 225 per group). Overall, participants held fairly positive perceptions of the police, but perceptions held by GSS participants were more positive than those held by PMI participants. PMI participants were more likely than GSS participants to have contact with the police in the prior 12 months. In multivariate models, perceptions differed between PMI and GSS participants for police performance in being approachable and treating people fairly, and overall confidence in police; police contact was not associated with perceptions nor did it moderate effects of participant group. Consistent with the procedural justice framework, fair and equitable treatment appears to be of primary relevance to PMI perceptions of the police. Further efforts are needed to improve PMI perceptions of the police in these areas.


attitudes, confidence, police, contact, mental illness

Summary of the Research

People with mental illnesses (PMI) have frequent contact with the police under various circumstances. A substantial proportion of police contact with PMI takes the form of mental health crises and the civil commitment process. Regardless of the reason, PMI often come into contact with the police at rates that are much higher than the general population.

“The present study examined the perceptions of police held by PMI, compared them with findings of a general population survey conducted in the same geographic area using the same questions, and explored whether differences, if any, between PMI and general population perceptions of the police may be attributable to direct contact with the police in the prior 12 months” (p. 433). Contact with the police in the past 12 months was utilized as an explanatory variable for police perception among PMI participants. Data from 225 PMI participants and 225 General Social Survey (GSS) participants were analyzed. Participant’s age, sex, minority status, education, household income, geographic location, and primary language were coded. Additionally, primary psychiatric diagnosis, history of involuntary hospitalization and history of problematic substance abuse were coded. Participants were individually matched based on age, sex, minority status educated, household income, and geographic location.

Police Contact

“Overall, 60.0% of PMI participants (n = 135) and 40.0% of GSS participants (n = 90) reported that they had contact with the police in the prior 12 months in the context of a public information session, a traffic violation, being a victim of a crime, witnessing a crime, or perpetrating a crime. The crude odds ratio was 2.28 (CI 95% = 1.56–3.32, p < .001), indicating a twofold increase in the likelihood of police contact for at least one of these five reasons among PMI compared with GSS participants” (p. 435). “Specifically, compared with GSS participants, PMI participants were more than six times as likely to have contact with police as the victim of a crime (crude OR = 6.06, CI 95% = 3.39–10.84, p < .001) and five times as likely as a witness of a crime (crude OR = 5.32, CI 95% = 2.91–9.71, p < .001)” (p. 435).

Perceptions of the Police

Overall, both groups rated police perception fairly positive. A large percentage of both PMI and GSS participants indicated that the police were doing a good job across domains and reported a high level confidence in the police. However, significant differences were found between PMI and GSS participants in the following domains: enforcing laws, being approachable, supplying information to the public, and treating people fairly.

For these areas, PMI participants indicated less positive ratings than GSS participants. PMI participants were more likely to rate the police as doing a poor job in these identified fields than doing an average or a good job, in comparison to the GSS participant ratings. Contact with the police in the past 12 months did not play a significant role in individual perceptions. Perceptions of police, negative or positive, may have been instilled in individuals based on learning about police contact with other individuals.

“Multivariate analyses revealed that ratings of confidence in the police and evaluations of police performance in being approachable and treating people fairly were lower among PMI participants than among GSS participants. It is notable that group differences for perceptions associated with procedural justice (i.e., being approachable and treating people fairly) remained significant even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, but not for perceptions associated with instrumental justice (i.e., enforcing laws, responding promptly, and supplying information to the public). These differential effects are consistent with past research suggesting that perceptions of police may differ in meaningful ways between individuals or between groups along the dimensions of procedural and instrumental justice” (p. 440).

Translating Research into Practice

Incongruities regarding police perception were established between PMI and GSS participants in three main areas–being approachable, treating people fairly, and overall confidence–these findings suggest the need for improvements in interactions between PMI and police. Further efforts are needed to improve PMI perceptions of the police. PMI rated police the lowest for treating people fairly. The nature and quality of the interaction between the police and PMI can be influenced by the perceptions police officers and PMI hold of one another. “Indeed, police officers often are the first responders to situations involving PMI and, in these situations, police officers regularly engage in ‘the work of social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, and others’ (p. 372). Consequently, police officers have come to be referred to as ‘de facto mental health service providers’ and ‘psychiatrists in blue’ (Menzies, 1987)” (p. 432). Perceptions of police officers and PMI can play a significant role in determining how interactions amongst them unfold.

Education is an important component for ensuring that PMI and police can effectively interact with each other. Police officers come into frequent contact with PMI as these individuals report being victims of crimes, request assistance from police, or have contact with the police during mental health crises. It is critical to reduce crime perpetration and victimization in this population; thus, clinicians should be aware of the importance of incorporating community safety into PMI treatment plans. Educating PMI on police duties and the functions of law enforcement may provide these individuals with a better understanding and better prepare them in the event they come in contact with the police in the future. Education regarding the policies that law enforcement agencies maintain for events like mental health crises may also prove beneficial. In addition, awareness of community programs offered by the police may also promote harmonious relationships.

“Further, the high rates of contact between PMI and police emphasize the importance of police officers having the skills to increase the likelihood that interactions are positive in nature, regardless of the reason for or the outcome of the interaction. Thus, efforts should be made to implement specialized police training in methods that promote perceptions of procedurally fair treatment among PMI, including but not limited to Crisis intervention training” (p. 439).

Offering specialized police trainings may assist with promoting procedural justice and perceptions of fair treatment among PMI. Educating police officers on how to develop positive approaches when initially encountering an individual with mental illness may assist in strengthening the interaction between the two parties. Effective communication between the police and PMI is important and enabling PMI to be involved in the process of resolving their problems may increase their feelings of being treated fairly.

Training police officers on effective initial interaction techniques and educating them on a broad range of mental health diagnoses, symptoms, and coping skills might allow for both parties to feel comfortable interacting and allow for smooth proceedings.

“Encouragingly, findings suggest that organizational shifts in policies and implementation of programs to teach police officers skills, such as empathy, active listening, perspective taking and nonstigmatizing attitudes have had a positive effect on their interactions. Whether the trend continues and, ultimately, contributes to increased willingness of PMI to obey the law, to cooperate with the police, and to seek assistance from police remains to be seen and will require ongoing efforts to support these policies and programs at individual and organizational levels” (p. 441).

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Special Contributor

Contributions to this post were made by Amanda Beltrani.BeltraniAmanda

Amanda M. Beltrani is a first-year graduate student in the Forensic Psychology masters program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her professional interests include forensic assessments and criminal matter evaluations. Amanda plans to continue her studies in a doctoral program after completion of her Masters degree.


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