Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Police Decision-Making in the Gray Zone: The Dynamics of Police–Citizen Encounters with Mentally Ill Persons

Research finds mentally ill persons have higher rates of police contacts, arrests, and criminal charges for minor offenses and noncriminal behavior. It remains unclear whether the decision-making process and factors affecting discretion reflect a procedural bias that criminalizes the mentally ill. 

Using observational data from a Canadian police service, the findings suggest higher odds for criminal charges with serious offenses, males, older citizens, a prior criminal record, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and being uncooperative with requests for information and compliance. The odds of a citation are higher for proactive calls, more serious offenses, older citizens, mentally ill persons, those under the influence, or with a disrespectful demeanor. 

The overall findings suggest an indirect procedural bias exists due to situational constraints, a disjuncture between policy and police culture, and limited mental health resources that lead to response strategies that contribute to criminalization of the mentally ill.

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Jennifer L. Schulenberg, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G1, Canada; e-mail:

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