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Officers in Blue, Please Don’t Sue

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 19:50
GUESTWORDS

I am a medical doctor and child psychiatrist, and I work with many young men and women in our community. I have been working with mentally ill patients for years, and unfortunately many of them can show aggression or become a danger to themselves or others. This is especially true when they are psychotic, or have been severely traumatized in the past.

When this happens, I call 911, and the officers show up and do their job professionally. I know that if a patient is a danger, the East Hampton police and emergency medical services are there for me to help transport that patient to the hospital, where he or she can get the help required. The need for collaboration between psychiatry and law enforcement is stronger than ever.

Over the past 20 years, the number of hospital beds has been cut, and interactions between psychiatric patients and law enforcement have increased. I am thankful to great programs like the one at the Family Service League, which opened up a crisis center. The league employs mental health professionals in our schools and in our pediatrics offices, such as Gail Schonfeld and Harriet Hellman, whose practices are part of the local medical and mental health community, and they are doing incredible work to address this need. 

I am also extremely grateful to the police officers who have assisted me over the years. Mental health is complicated, and when psychosis or other issues contribute to violent acts, the police and E.M.S. are always there when we need them.

I am aware of the current situation, and the recent news article in The East Hampton Star about a family sued by a police officer after their mentally ill child became aggressive in their home and injured the officer. I am very sorry when I hear that any officer has been injured. I also take personal risks to my health and safety when working with potentially unstable people. This is a risk I choose to take because of my sworn oath to help the mentally ill.

Police officers also take a similar oath and understand there are risks to their job. There are systems in place such as workers’ compensation, disability, etc., to help them if they are injured at work.

I am worried about the idea of allowing police officers to sue the families of children or adults who have mental illness. This may set a precedent that could result in long-term negative consequences. For example, parents or family members may fear retaliation from the police and may hesitate to call 911 when a family member with mental illness gets agitated. There are fears of being sued, taken to court, missing work to deal with depositions, and potentially losing livelihood.

As a psychiatrist, I might fear calling 911 when a patient gets agitated because if an officer gets injured in that altercation, then I might be sued as the owner of the office.

I know these issues are complicated and that most mentally ill people are not dangerous. When someone who is seriously mentally ill takes medication and follows up with a treatment plan, that person generally does not become aggressive or hostile. This is why police officers, E.M.S., and mental health professionals must all work together to ensure patients can get the care they need.

If those systems are broken and police officers have no other options, then we have to fix that. We can do this by lobbying the federal and local governments for additional funding and resources. The answer is not in seeking personal lawsuits against patients or families when they call 911 for help. 

Following down this path opens the door to an erosion of the fabric of our community and leads to litigiousness, which in the long run benefits few and is at great expense to many. Prevention is always best. Protocols on how the mentally ill are handled when they are agitated may be worth additional scrutiny.

No doubt there are other opportunities for psychiatrists and mental health professionals to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the mentally ill. This may include offering to teach law enforcement agencies pertinent issues about mental illness, and in return law enforcement professionals may educate psychiatrists on safety and law enforcement’s role in mental health.

I have seen countless examples of great East Hampton police officers. My grandfather was a police officer, and my brother is a colonel in the Marine Corps, so I am acutely aware of the risks officers take when dealing with potentially violent people. I know there must be ways of dealing with members of our community with mental health needs that are better than seeking legal compensation from their families, and I am hoping to challenge our community to come up with those ways.


Lea Lis, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Southampton and East Hampton and an assistant clinical professor at New York University. Her website is drlealis.com