Dealing with the Mentally Ill and Emotionally Disturbed in the Use of Force Context
By Jack Ryan
While the force continuum remains constant for
controlling and arresting all persons, a number of
cases suggest that agencies must conduct training
for dealing with the emotionally disturbed and
mentally-ill persons in the context of use of force.
Many agencies have policies related to civil
commitments and dealing with the mentally ill, yet
few agencies actually conduct training related to
these policies and even fewer train on tactics and
use of force in the context of the emotionally
disturbed and the mentally ill.
In Gaddis v. Redford Township, and City of Dearborn
Heights, 364 F.3d 763 (6th Cir. 2004), the United
States Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s
dismissal of a lawsuit against officers and two
municipalities for a shooting involving an emotionally
disturbed person. The incident in Gaddis began when
an officer observed Joseph Gaddis driving his
automobile in a slumped-over position. The officer
believed Gaddis was drunk and pulled him over. When
the officer got out of his police car, Gaddis took off
again. The officer pursued Gaddis and was joined by
other officers. When Gaddis was finally stopped,
Officer Bain approached the driver’s side of the car
and told Gaddis to step out of the car. When Gaddis
stepped out he had his hands in his pockets. The
officer told him to take his hands out of the pockets.
As Gaddis pulled his hands out, some of the officers
observed a knife in his hand. The officer tactically
created some distance and began yelling at Gaddis to
drop the knife, leading to a two to three minute
At some point during this standoff, Gaddis said to
Bain “Why are you doing this to me, Chris, like you
did to me in California.” Bain testified that this remark
led him to believe that Gaddis was not rational since
Bain had no prior contact with Gaddis. Following an
assertion by Gaddis that he wanted to leave, Officer
Bain moved in and pepper-sprayed him. Shortly
thereafter a second officer, Burdick, went over the
trunk of Gaddis’ vehicle and tried to tackle him, which
caused Gaddis to violently react and strike Burdick
with a “windmill” type motion. Officer Bain and Officer
Duffany testified that they observed Gaddis stabbing
at Officer Burdick causing them to open fire, shooting
sixteen rounds in a single burst, hitting Gaddis in the
torso, right arm, buttocks, and left thigh.
In the resulting lawsuit, Gaddis’ expert Dr. Jim Fyfe
(Commissioner of Training NYPD) provided an affidavit
that asserted his opinion “that the officers deviated
from proper police techniques for dealing with
emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs). In particular,
he testified that officers using correct police
techniques would recognize that ‘techniques of
intimidation and force’ are not likely to work on EDPs
in the way they may work on rational persons. He
testified that police should instead have picked a
single officer to talk calmly to the EDP, and should
have refrained from unnecessary displays of force.
Fyfe criticized Bain’s use of pepper spray, and
described Burdick’s attempt to tackle Gaddis by
surprise from behind as a ‘terrible tactic.’”
Although the court upheld the summary judgment for
the officers, the court asserted:
“We acknowledge that a suspect’s apparent mental
state is one of the facts and circumstances of the
particular case that should be considered in weighing
an excessive force claim. Moreover, the opinions of
qualified experts such as Mr. Fyfe are often entitled
to be given weight in this determination.”
This is an area where agencies need to provide some
level of training, particularly as courts begin to
recognize such training as a generally-accepted
A case providing insight into the importance of such
training was decided by the United States District
Court for Nevada and denied summary judgment for
the Las Vegas Metro Police Department on a failure
to train claim related to dealing with the mentally ill
in the use of force context. The case, Herrera v. Las
Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, 298 F.Supp
2d 1043 (Dist. Nevada 2004), involved a call to the
police to assist in taking David Herrera, who was
described as having severe mental illness and being
delusional, for an involuntary commitment to a
hospital. At the outset, it should be noted that the
court was considering a summary judgment motion
and the facts examined by the court were not
agreed upon facts, but instead were the facts
reviewed in a light most-favorable to Herrera’s
The call prompted the response of four officers and a
supervisor to the Herrera’s mother’s home. The police
were told of Herrera’s mental illness; that there were
no firearms in the house; and that Herrera was alone.
David had previously been holding a small paring knife
before the police arrived. The officers decided to use
a “devastator” pepper-spray canister and a “low-
lethality shotgun” loaded with bean bag pellets. The
officers were given the key to the house by Herrera’s
mother and attempted to use it to gain entry. When
Herrera kept re-locking the door, the officers kicked
it in. The officers then confronted Herrera, who was
holding a knife. One officer fired four shots from the
bean-bag shotgun, buckling Herrera at the knees;
two officers approached and tried to knock the knife
from his hands with their batons; a third officer
approached and sprayed Herrera with the pepper
spray. The officers continually told Herrera to drop
the knife, but he did not. Instead, he held the knife
up and told the officers they would have to kill him.
According to the officers, Herrera began moving
toward the officers causing Officer Woodruff to shoot
Herrera several times, killing him.
In its consideration of the failure to train claim, the
“that the evidence provided by plaintiff, indicating
that the police were inadequately trained in dealing
with the mentally ill and using impact projectiles, is
sufficient to survive summary judgment. Plaintiff’s
expert, retired Captain Van Blaircom, who is former
chief of police for the City of Bellevue, Washington,
testified that the Defendant officers should have
known that the manner in which they approached
the decedent would escalate the confrontation.
According to Van Blaircom, the officer’s treatment of
the situation, combined with their statements that a
mentally ill person should be treated as any other
person, regardless of the situation, indicates that the
police department’s training dealing with the mentally
ill falls well below the reasonable standard of
Upon reviewing these cases, one must recognize that
courts are taking into account a person’s mental
illness and further have determined that where
officer’s know of the mental illness or emotional
disturbance, officer’s may have an obligation to alter
their tactics where they can safely do so. Further,
an agency that fails to train officers that these
circumstances may require different treatment may
face liability for deficient training.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police
(IACP) implemented a model policy on “Dealing with
the Mentally Ill in 1997. The policy asserts:
Dealing with individuals in enforcement and related
contexts who are known or suspected to be mentally
ill carries the potential for violence, requires an
officer to make difficult judgments about the mental
state and intent of the individual, and requires
special police skills and abilities to effectively and
legally deal with the person so as to avoid
unnecessary violence and potential civil litigation.
Given the unpredictable and sometimes violent nature
of the mentally ill, officers should never compromise
or jeopardize their safety or the safety of others
when dealing with individuals displaying symptoms of
mental illness. In the context of enforcement and
related activities, officers shall be guided by this
state’s law regarding the detention of the mentally ill.
Officers shall use this policy to assist them in defining
whether a person’s behavior is indicative of mental
illness and dealing with the mentally ill in a
constructive and humane manner.
The policy also provides a number of suggested
tactics when dealing with the mentally ill:
Should the officer determine that an individual may
be mentally ill and a potential threat to himself, the
officer, or others, or may otherwise require law
enforcement intervention for humanitarian reasons as
prescribed by statute, the following responses may
Request a backup officer, and always do so in cases
where the individual will be taken into custody.
Take steps to calm the situation. Where possible,
eliminate emergency lights and sirens, disperse
crowds, and assume a quiet non-threatening manner
when approaching or conversing with the individual.
Where violence or destructive acts have not
occurred, avoid physical contact, and take time to
assess the situation.
Move slowly and do not excite the disturbed person.
Provide reassurance that the police are there to help
and that he will be provided with appropriate care.
Communicate with the individual in an attempt to
determine what is bothering him. Relate your concern
for his feelings and allow him to ventilate his feelings.
Where possible, gather information on the subject
from acquaintances or family members and/or request
professional assistance if available and appropriate to
assist in communicating with and calming the person.
Do not threaten the individual with arrest or in any
other manner as this will create additional fright,
stress, and potential aggression.
Avoid topics that may agitate the person and guide
the conversation toward subjects that help bring the
individual back to reality.
Always attempt to be truthful with a mentally ill
individual. If the subject becomes aware of a
deception, he may withdraw from the contact in
distrust and may become hypersensitive or retaliate
While the model policy was actually developed to
assist law enforcement with dealing with the mentally
ill in non-arrest situations, this policy is now being
looked by some police practice experts as defining
the tactics that officers should use whenever they
are dealing with a known mentally ill or emotionally
disturbed person. Training officers would be well-
advised to conduct training related to these tactical
considerations for dealing with the mentally ill or
emotionally disturbed persons.
Points to Remember:
While the force continuum does not change due to a
subject’s mental status, officers should take this
status into account [where the status is known] in
their approach of the subject in an effort to de-
escalate the possibility of a violent outburst by the
Once a mentally disturbed or emotionally disturbed
person has been controlled, officers should consider
whether common restraint tactics may be more
dangerous to the individual due to the subject’s
Trainers should incorporate tactical issues for dealing
with the emotionally disturbed or mentally ill in use of
force training. It is common for officer conduct to be
scrutinized in their use of force with the mentally ill
and emotionally disturbed.
As with any use of force, officers should always
provide an immediate medical response to individuals
who are exhibiting signs or complaining of injury or
illness following a use of force.
Jack Ryan is an attorney in Rhode Island, a graduate Juris Doctorate,
Cum Laude Suffolk University Law School. Jack has 20 years police experience
as a police officer with the Providence Police Department, Providence, RI.
Jack’s law degree and experience as a police officer gives
him the unique perspective of the legal and liability issues.
Jack is a former adjunct faculty member at Salve Regina University
and lectures frequently throughout the United States.
Jack is a Standing
Committee Member of the Homicide
Cold Case Review board.