On Police Identification of the mentally abnormal

How to recognizeWestborough, The police-mental health interaction continues to be one that neither party exhibit great confidence nor take great pride in.  Myths abound about how to treat those so afflicted – especially among law enforcement personnel. I have provided classes for LEO’s and generally they are not well attended and tend to bore the average officer. In Maine, LEO’s are required to have regular training in working with the mentally ill in order to maintain their LEO credentials. Other states in New England have similar requirements and now focus on psychological first aid and deescalation protocols.  I have presented on topics of assessment of risk and dangerousness with some success.  In- service training must be short and to the point or students will quickly lose interest.
The photograph above shows the cover of a guide book first written in 1954 that was instructional for police officers.  It was written to teach the law enforcement officers of the day to recognize signs of mental illness then defined as “abnormal people”.  It was written by 2 Louisiana State University psychologists and first used by a police agencies in the late 1950’s.  I have been trying to find a copy of this early version that was re-published in 1979 and now costs over $100.  It was written because police officers needed training and experience identifying features of psychiatric emergency. This was thought to reduce the uncertainty, fear and confusion around handling these cases by providing education including signs and symptoms.
After nearly 60 years, law enforcement is not significantly closer to understanding the mentally ill than they were in 1954. A colleague, police psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. has an original copy of this booklet although I have not seen it as yet.  Dr. Polizoti provides consultation to law enforcement, officer selection interviews, and teaches a proactive approach psychological resilience to police officers that can afford them greater career satisfaction, professionalism, and longevity. Dr. Polizoti is tasked with supporting officers who are exposed to the daily grind of violence, suicide, homelessness, and its cumulative impact on a cop’s personal narrative.  His model suggests a fundamental change in how police officers interpret their experiences over time and acceptance of what cannot change and healthy adaptation.  He is a great asset to the Central Massachusetts community and across New England and espouses a model of stress resistance through adaptation.
“In 1954, the National Association for Mental Health first issued the book “How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer.” Included were techniques on dealing with all kinds of “abnormal persons,” from psychopaths, drug addicts, and the “mentally retarded” to civil protestors and those involved in family disturbances.”  Posted by David Pescovitz, 2015
Text from 1954 How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer is provided below.  It points out many of the outward signs of disturbed thinking often an underlying feature of those with mental illness – in this case something called ideas of reference. These signs are common among persons with early paranoia and are sometimes missed – even by members of the immediate family. This is still a common symptom of mental illness today and is considered to be the prodrome to a more serious loss of contact with reality. Ultimately, it comes down to who is at more risk for violence?  And how can we be sure?
It takes a healthy and educated police officer to observe, understand, and control unpredictable situations. Officers are required to adapt to the demands of individual calls for service.  A colleague Dr. Leo Polizoti has identified a model for coping with the strain of police service.  He cites the importance of avoiding apathy, withdrawal and bitterness on the job.  “Understanding the 3 C’s of hardiness, Challenge / Commitment and Control will assist officers to manage stress more effectively, resulting in fewer emotional and medical problems. By viewing each new situation as a challenge, instead of a threat, you become committed to that challenge. You can readily see yourself in control and better able to deal with the situation. You will enhance your “hardiness” or resistance to stress” Polizoti, 2018.   
“He may think, for example, that announcements made over the radio have something to do with him personally. He may even hear his name mentioned. These are called ideas of reference which, of course, means that the patient thinks people are referring to him in one way or another. In the beginning, ideas of reference may occur only occasionally, but they gradually become the rule rather than the exception, and finally they may develop into definite delusions of persecution or grandeur.”
The list below are the signs of “abnormal persons” that are printed in the booklet published in 1954:
  • He shows big changes in his behavior.
  • He has strange /losses of memory, such as where he is or what day it is.
  • He thinks people are plotting against him, or has grand ideas about himself.
  • He talks to himself or hears voices.
  • He thinks people are watching him or talking about him.
  • He sees visions or smells strange odors or has peculiar tastes.
  • He has complaints of bodily ailments that are not possible.
  • He behaves in a way which is dangerous to himself or others.
Interestingly, the bullet points above remain accurate today with the understanding that too many individuals suffering with a major mental illness also have substance abuse/dependence.  It is this fact that confounds most LEO – mentally ill encounters.  “Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and  an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Polizotti, 2018.  Emotional and physical strength and endurance requires hardiness that comes from personal responsibility and comittment to excellence and peak performance.  Greater focus on sobriety – including opioid and alcohol dependence is essential. If this can be maintained mental illness may remit to the extent that subjects can remain in the community. Programs like A.A., N.A., and other 12-step groups are free and often afford subjects great support.  In most cities there are 12-step meetings every day morning, noon and night.  The problem is getting people to realize they have a problem.  Even airports hold A.A. meetings for travelers in need of the 12-steps. We are working on a replacement manual like the one cited in this post.


Polizoti, L. (2018) Personal Life Demands. Presentation – Direct Decision Institute.
How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer (1954) Matthews, R. M.D. and Rowland, L. Ph.D. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH, INC. 10 COLUMBUS CIRCLE, NEW YORK 19, N. Y.

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