Handcuffs for People in Mental Health Crisis are Just Plain Wrong

I’ve linked to an article below about how a now-fired police officer hand-cuffed two six-year-olds, in separate incidents, and hauled them off to jail to be booked, complete with mug shots and fingerprinting. Um, what??? This treatment of first graders acting out at school in the form of temper tantrums is astoundingly inappropriate–yet not uncommon.

We have come to a place where law enforcement, in the interest of “public safety,” is handcuffing and otherwise restraining and traumatizing vast numbers of our vulnerable and marginalized populations: children, the homeless, the emotionally sensitive, and those diagnosed with mental illness. This must stop.

When I go to court to represent a person subject to involuntary civil commitment proceedings, they are often restrained not just with handcuffs, but belly chains and ankle shackles. They are treated not only as criminals, but as the most dangerous sort of lawbreakers–someone who might savagely attack anyone in the courtroom if they were not nearly immobilized by chains.

This, to me, shocks the conscience in its ignorance and cruelty. In any courtroom, there is at least one fully-armed bailiff; usually more than one. In addition, the individual who is the subject of the involuntary commitment is escorted from the lockdown inpatient or other facility by at least one armed “transport” official. So, at a minimum, there are two fully armed officers ready and able to control any unexpected dangerous outburst. But those outbursts, in my experience, don’t happen. The unsubstantiated notion that people diagnosed with mental illness are somehow dangerous lunatics is based in fear, not in well-documented science. Fear-based control is never rational, and always a threat to civil liberties.

Being handcuffed and restrained is an affront to human dignity. It is a humiliating, painful, degrading experience. It is especially damaging to sensitive, emotional people, who are most likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. Police and sheriff’s departments who mandate this treatment on a routine basis, with no CIT or other assessment of whether it is necessary, need to re-evaluate their unnecessary, inhumane and, in some states, unlawful policies.

We understand the quandary of law enforcement in dealing with people in emotional crisis. Officers responding to a mental health call have to balance criminal law, patient rights, patient safety, their own safety, the safety of the patient’s family members. Obviously, police usually aren’t the best people for the job. We need to stop sending law enforcement, especially officers untrained in how to deal with people in emotional crisis, to handle these situations.

This should be seen as an evolving cultural decency standard regarding coercion and punishment, similar to what has happened across the country regarding the practice of shackling pregnant women who are giving birth while incarcerated. See Hall et al., “Pregnant Women and the Use of Corrections Restraints and Substance Use Commitment,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, September, 2015, 43 (3) 359-368.

And we should stop it. #wecanandmustdobetter


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