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Does Law Enforcement Have a Responsibility to Protect Mentally Ill Suspects and Prisoners?


Law Enforcements Obligation to the Mentally Ill

In the state of California, mental illness in prisons has become a major problem. Some estimates indicate that close to 15 percent or more of the inmates in California prisons suffer from a mental health problem. Unfortunately, law enforcement officers are not always aware of suspects’ or prisoners’ mental illness, and, even when they are, they may not have the ability or resources to adequately ensure the safety of either. However, law enforcement in California does have, to an extent, a responsibility to protect mentally ill suspects and prisoners from personal injury or harm in certain situations, explains a lawyer.

In 2009 in the state of California, a three-judge panel found that overcrowding in state prisons has created significant health risks. Unfortunately, many of the prisoners who suffer the most due to inadequate resources and overcrowding are prisoners who are afflicted with a mental illness. The healthcare provided to incarcerated individuals who suffer from mental problems is limited and there may also be many more individuals in prisons or jails who suffer from undiagnosed issues.

The California justice system has come under fire numerous times for failure to provide adequately for the needs of mentally ill inmates. In Madrid v Gomez 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995), for instance, a claim was filed to remedy unconstitutional conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison. The court in Madrid held, among other things, that prisoners with mental illness should be removed from the Security Housing Unit. In Gates v. Deukmejian 987 F.2d 1392 (9th Cir. 1993), the court also determined that psychiatric care in prisons needed to be improved and resulted in the assignment of a special master to monitor medical care efforts.

Perhaps the most noteworthy case, however, was Coleman v. Wilson 912 F.Supp. 1282 (E.D. Cal. 1995), in which the court declared that the California Department of Correction’s entire mental health system was not Constitutional as a result of the deliberate indifference of the Department and prison officials towards the special needs of the mentally ill. Like in Gates, this case resulted in a special master being assigned to ensure a change in policy and practice.

These cases addressed the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, but there are also other situations in which California law enforcement may have an obligation to the mentally ill as well. For instance, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was subject to a lawsuit when 24-year-old Mitrice Richards was released from custody without her vehicle, wallet or cellular telephone after midnight. The recent college grad had been behaving oddly and was arrested for walking out on an $89 restaurant tab. Upon leaving the police station, she was not seen again until her corpse was discovered a year later. The Los Angeles Times has also reported a more recent incident where an 18-year-old mentally disturbed teen was released from prison before dawn and has not yet been found.

Police Obligations

The treatment of the mentally ill both in prison and upon arrest is a complex issue, in part because there is no general duty of law enforcement to provide aid. The obligations of law enforcement in California are to uphold the law and to serve and protect, but they cannot be held civilly liable for personal injury or harm that private parties do to themselves or to each other except in certain limited circumstances when a special relationship exists or where the state creates a danger, explains a lawyer.

One of the first situations in which law enforcement becomes responsible for the safety and well-being of a private party is when that individual is taken into police custody or incarcerated. These acts create a special relationship and failure to care for the individual in such a situation can be a violation of his 14th Amendment right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For instance, according to DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 109 S. Ct. 998 (1989), when the state restrains a person’s freedom to act on his own behalf, either by incarcerating, institutionalizing, or restraining his personal liberty by some other means, this “‘deprivation of liberty’ [triggers] the protections of the Due Process Clause.”

Depriving prisoners of necessary mental health services can also be seen as a violation of other Constitutional rights, including the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Another situation in which law enforcement becomes responsible for providing aid is when the state creates a danger or acts in some affirmative manner that puts an individual in a more dangerous situation than he would have been in without police involvement. For instance, in Munger v. City of Glasgow Police Dept., 227 F. 3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2000), police evicted a man from a bar for argumentative behavior but allowed him to wander off on a freezing night in just jeans and a tee-shirt. When the man subsequently died of hypothermia, the police were considered to have breached a legal duty and were held legally liable for his resulting death in a civil lawsuit.

In California, while law enforcement has no general duty to provide aid to the mentally ill, in certain circumstances officers are obligated to protect suspects and prisoners suffering from mental conditions from personal injury or harm, explains a lawyer.

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