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A Set of Boundary Problems

Bud Levin

When U.S. President Reagan was shot, the U.S. went through some soul-searching — and some sense of vengeance — regarding responsibility of those who were mentally ill and also committed a criminal act.  States took two diverse approaches, approximately:

  1. Guilty but mentally ill:  The person would be imprisoned but some treatment might be made available in prison versus
  2. Not guilty by reason of insanity: The person would not be held responsible criminally but could be committed to a mental facility.

There is still disagreement about which approach is preferable and how well each of them works.  But we’ve also got a second and even more complicated problem. Where is the boundary between religious zealotry and mental illness — and terrorism.  An instructive case is that of the Philadelphia police officer who was attacked Thursday night (http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/08/us/philadelphia-police-officer-shot/) by someone with a history of mental illness and who claimed to be acting on behalf of Islam and in the name of ISIS.

In the Philadelphia case, how does one separate out the terrorism dimension from the mental illness and from religious zealotry?  What rules should police and prosecutors follow? Also keep in mind that the first two clauses of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantee religious freedom.

Labels are convenient and attractive because they are simple. Because they are simple, they can be used to achieve political ends and to unite mobs (virtual or physical).  But real cases rarely are so simple.

Police are faced daily with real people who are multidimensional. As transparency burgeons, information on these individuals and their interactions with police will be even more rapidly and widely shared. The potential for firing up mobs and intemperate individuals is significant.

The choices that police have are limited somewhat by law and by service availability.  To give a concrete example of the latter, my department wants to be able to refer first-time drug offenders to treatment instead of arresting them. Unfortunately, treatment resources are very limited, so they become enmeshed in the criminal justice system — which rarely makes things better and always is expensive to all parties.

Both strategically and tactically, what should police do while enmeshed in such mine fields? Whatever your answer, now play out the processes and the political winds/whimsy to test the viability of the answer.

 

 

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