By editorial board • 

Force does not always lead to best outcome

When a police officer catches a thief in the act, training and experience give him a good idea how his quarry is going to respond and what he should do to counter that. But confronting a citizen in the grip of a psychotic episode can and often does leave the same officer at a loss, as Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson noted in a recent talk hosted by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Today’s best practice, embraced by both Svenson and his municipal counterpart, McMinnville Police Chief Matt Scales, relies on early intervention by a specialized Crisis Intervention Team. Such a team consists of officers trained to recognize situations driven by mental impairment and bring them to a successful conclusion through de-escalation and diversion rather than blind application of force.

The concept arose from a police shooting in Memphis in 1995, and it has been gradually gaining currency ever since.

From the earliest stirrings of recorded history, thousands of years ago, manifestations of mental illness have frightened the forces of human social order. And for good reason.

Criminal behavior generally has one of two root causes — greed or mental illness.

The former is purposeful, thus subject to rational analysis and response. Perpetrators are looking for an unfair, undeserved edge, and are willing to cut corners to get it.

The latter is something else entirely. Its randomness makes it much harder to counter when it crosses to the realm of criminality.
In early civilizations emerging in Asia, Africa and Europe, aimlessly disruptive behavior was typically ascribed to such supernatural causes as demonic possession or the wrath of the gods. How else to explain actions not driven by hope of ill-gotten gain?

In such cases, it wasn’t enough to exact a penalty calculated to tip the balance enough so the undesired behavior no longer promised to pay off, the essence of the deterrent approach, which might work for the rational man, but had no hope of success with his irrational counterpart.

It’s no wonder the “insane” were locked away in asylums or dungeons in medieval Europe, or that “witches” were burned at the stake in colonial New England. To have any validity, a deterrent needed to be permanent.

Over the successive centuries, we have developed ways to treat those among us who are struggling with a form of mental disease or defect. There is still no magic answer, but there is now hope.

That makes it incumbent on us to distinguish between evil and illness early on and get violators of the social order routed on the right track.

For the greed-driven, that is typically the criminal justice system, which includes an incarceration component as its ultimate deterrent. But for the mentally ill, the criminal system is not only ineffective, but also inordinately expensive.

Today’s law enforcement officer can no longer rely solely on the badge, gun and jail cell to get the job done. It’s good to know we have a sheriff and chief who recognize that difference.