Community Collaborations on Mental Illness: The Critical Role of
Law Enforcement

graphic of brain x-ray and medical symbol superimposed on topIn recent years, law enforcement officers have often become the first responders to people with mental illness who are in crisis. When family members, friends, or others call 911 about someone they know who is experiencing a psychiatric emergency, police officers are frequently dispatched to the scene. The burden on these officers has only increased in recent years, as sharp cuts to mental health budgets have resulted in more people not having access to necessary mental health services.1

In response, police departments in many communities have adopted specialized approaches to responding to people with mental illness in crisis. Most notable are Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs. CIT officers are taught crisis de-escalation skills and other methods for calming people in potentially volatile situations.

Communities that have adopted CIT programs usually have mental health triage sites that serve as drop off centers for officers to bring people in crisis in lieu of arresting and incarcerating them. CIT programs have a track record of success; reducing arrests, deaths, and injuries, both to officers and the individuals to whom they are responding. CIT-trained officers frequently report feeling safer when responding to people with serious mental illness, and say that the skills they have learned have helped them in all aspects of their job. Today, CIT programs exist in many communities throughout the country.

Sequential Intercept

However, CIT is not enough. There is growing recognition that community-wide collaborations are necessary to respond to the increasing numbers of individuals with mental illness—many with co-occurring substance abuse disorders—who are involved with criminal justice systems.

The Sequential Intercept model is a guide for communities to consider the interaction between people living with mental illness and the criminal justice system “as a series of points where interventions can be made to prevent a person from entering the justice system or becoming further entangled.”2 There are multiple points of potential intercept, including law enforcement, post-arrest, courts, reentry, and community corrections. 3

Mental Health Courts, Veterans Courts, Drug Courts, and other “problem solving courts” are key components of a sequential, collaborative approach to addressing the needs of people living with mental illness who come into contact with justice systems.

Mental Health Courts were first established to address the growing awareness that many non-violent offenders with mental illnesses were cycling in and out of correctional settings without ever getting the sustained treatment they needed to break the cycle of recidivism. Borrowing from the Drug Court model, Mental Health Courts were established with the goal of diverting individuals from incarceration into treatment, and providing ongoing coordination and supervision.

The first mental health court was established in Indianapolis in the early 1980s, but the movement really launched in the late 1990s when four such courts were established in Broward County, Florida; King County, Washington; Anchorage, Alaska; and San Bernardino, California.4 Today, it is estimated that there are more than 150 Mental Health Courts in existence, with many more in the planning stages.

Mental Health Courts and other problem-solving courts differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in how they operate, who they serve, and what model they follow. However, there are certain common characteristics of all these courts.

First, since they are problem-solving courts, they have a therapeutic function and, therefore, represent an alternative approach to justice. As stated earlier, the primary goal of these courts is to facilitate treatment and recovery, not to punish.

Second, judges are generally very involved and engaged in the day to day operation of these courts. The judge provides ongoing supervision and monitoring of individuals served by these courts. In mental health courts, judges generally dispense with the traditional formalities of the justice system and invite individual participants, their families, mental health service providers, and others involved in the individual’s life to actively participate.

Third, dedicated staff are assigned and involved in the ongoing work of mental health courts. Generally, dedicated individuals are assigned by the prosecution, public defender’s office, the local mental health system, and other involved systems to work with the court.

Veterans Treatment Courts

In 2006, Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, New York, created the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court after noticing the growing number of veterans appearing on the dockets of the Drug and Mental Health Courts over which he also presided. Today, more than 95 Veterans Treatment Courts are in operation throughout the United States. Law enforcement agencies are important collaborators in virtually every community where these Courts exist. 5

Veterans Mentors play a very important role in the operation of Veterans Treatment Courts. In recognition that other veterans are best able to help veterans in need, these Courts assertively seek veterans to participate as Veterans Mentors to those on the docket of the Court. Veterans Mentors volunteer their time and provide assistance to Veterans Treatment Court participants in areas such as housing, employment, job training, transportation, veterans and disabilities claims, and many other areas.

Roles for Law Enforcement

As detailed in this article, there are multiple roles that law enforcement officers and agencies can play to help drive community-wide efforts on jail diversion and better treatment for people with mental illness. Among these are:

  • Serving as Veterans Mentors – As described above, Veterans Mentors play critical roles in the operations of Veterans Courts. Since many law enforcement officers are veterans themselves, they are ideal to serve in this role.
  • Participating in community partnerships and planning efforts on jail diversion and reentry – No community should undertake the complex task of planning and operationalizing a comprehensive strategy on jail diversion and community reentry without the integral involvement of law enforcement.
  • Participating in statewide coalitions to improve services for people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders – In states such as Florida, the law enforcement community has assumed a leadership role—in partnership with mental health and other partners—in advocating for adequate funding and other important policy issues impacting services and support for people living with mental illness. This coalition, known as Florida Partners in Crisis, has been highly effective, and other states are looking at operationalizing similar coalitions.6

-Ronald S. Honberg, J.D.
Director of Policy and Legal Affairs,
National Alliance on Mental Illness



1 National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2011, “State Mental Health Cuts: The Continuing Crisis,” November,

2 National Alliance on Mental Illness, “The Sequential Intercept Model,”
, accessed 8/22/2012.

3 M. Munetz and P. Griffin, 2006, “Use of the Sequential Intercept Model as an Approach to Decriminalization of People with Serious Mental Illness,” Psychiatric Services 57, 4: 544.

4 J. Goldkamp and C. Irons-Guynn, 2000, “Emerging Judicial Strategies for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Caseload: Mental Health Courts in Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, San Bernardino, and Anchorage,” Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice.

5 Justice for Vets, The History,, accessed August 22, 2012.

6 Florida Partners in Crisis; Justice, Treatment and Safety,, accessed August 22, 2012.



Back to top

One on One with… | The Cop Who Got Fired | Salem, MA | Specialty Courts | Coatesville, PA | So you are being audited | Bethlehem, PA