Study beat benefits officers and forces

April 18, 2003

The Fulbright Commission, which promotes educational exchange between the UK and the US, this week launched its annual report with a focus on its police studies fellowships. Alan Thomson talks to two officers about their studies in the US

Sergeant Jonathan Dowd 's PhD thesis on how US police officers deal with situations involving people with mental health problems could change UK policing techniques.

Having given up a university place to join the Metropolitan Police at the age of 18, Sgt Dowd is on his way to completing a PhD - working title Policing Mental Health - under supervision from Newcastle University's clinical psychology and forensic psychiatry research group.

Sgt Dowd, now with Northumbria police, spent four months learning about mental health strategies employed by the Seattle police department. His trip was funded by a Fulbright police studies fellowship.

As one of 14 UK police officers who won a Fulbright scholarship to study aspects of US policing, Sgt Dowd is looking at how crisis intervention training (CIT), a strategy employed by growing numbers of US police departments, can help minimise the risk that people with mental health problems pose to themselves and to the public.

"CIT doesn't try to train officers to be psychologists. It is about identifying when a situation involves someone with a mental problem and what options are open to officers as opposed to police custody," Sgt Dowd said.

"The ultimate aim is to decriminalise people who are ill. It is almost a safety net for those with mental health problems. Officers deal with people in such situations less violently, which benefits the people concerned, their families as well as the public and officers themselves."

Figures from the Office of National Statistics report Psychiatric Morbidity Among Prisoners in England and Wales show that 78 per cent of male remand prisoners had personality disorders that led to stress or suffering for them or others. Half of female prisoners had personality disorders.

This does not mean that more than three-quarters of men on remand committed crimes when or because they were suffering mental health problems, merely that they also suffer from disorders. But the parallels are clear and are worth serious investigation. "A high proportion of the people police shoot have mental health problems," Sgt Dowd said.

Sgt Dowd's work has already attracted the attention of the Association of Chief Police Officers and outside bodies such as the mental health charity Mind, and so could be incorporated into a future UK version of the CIT initiative.

Detective chief inspector Kate Halpin is considering a career break with a view to studying for a masters in criminology in Los Angeles, where she spent seven months studying gang-related youth crime.

DCI Halpin, a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police's professional standards unit, would continue research into the world of LA gangs to understand the drivers behind gang recruitment and behaviour and how the Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff's Department are working to break such cycles.

DCI Halpin soon learnt that gang-related crime is on a different scale altogether in LA, where there are scores of fatal shootings each year.

Entire families can have gang links stretching back decades. DCI Halpin said: "Gang membership is almost predetermined at birth for some people."

DCI Halpin found many of the ideas behind the more community-oriented efforts aimed at preventing gang-related crime in LA were informative and potentially applicable to UK policing.

"In 1992 the city of LA recorded 1,150 murders. By 1997-98 it was down to 450 a year. There might be a lot of reasons for this huge reduction, including demographics and resettlement programmes but some of it has to be down to the community programmes run by the police," DCI Halpin said.

One initiative that caught DCI Halpin's eye was the LA Bridges programme that aims to cut youth-on-youth crime, much of which happens in the first three hours after school.

The police helped set up safe passages home, involving local people as "minders", and school staff were paid overtime to keep schools open later, additionally providing time for extra tuition.

Many ideas from DCI Halpin's studies are now feeding into police and local authority policy development in London.

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