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When responding to domestic violence situations, police officers generally are sympathetic to military veterans with symptoms of mental illness, and many would prefer to bring them to hospitals for psychiatric treatment.
Even so, the situations will most likely result in arrests, according to a new study.
Led by Northern Illinois University sociology professor Fred Markowitz, the study finds that police in these situations perceive the military veterans as less responsible for their troublesome behavior but more dangerous. Arrests become the most likely outcome because of overriding concerns for community safety and enforcement of the law.
The researchers drew their conclusions after presenting vignettes involving hypothetical domestic violence complaints and corresponding surveys to more than 300 police officers.
“Our findings suggest that officers recognize that in some cases treatment might be a more effective option,” says Markowitz, who conducts research on crime and mental illness. “But, at the same time, they may be frustrated with the lack of mental health resources that are rarely funded to do the type of outreach and engagement that is often necessary, particularly for veterans who are reluctant to seek services.”
More than 2 million military service personnel have been deployed to combat and support roles in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are at an increased risk of mental health problems, most notably, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recent estimates suggest that at least 20 percent of combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD or major depression. Military personnel and veterans also have higher rates of domestic violence compared with nonmilitary personnel.
When police officers recognize that suspects have mental health problems, their options include arresting the suspect, bringing them to hospitals for psychiatric treatment, or resolving the issue informally.
For the study, the researchers varied conditions presented in the hypothetical domestic violence situations, including the suspect’s veteran status, whether an injury was visible on the victim and whether a suspect was compliant.
When presented with the situation involving a non-veteran, 76 percent of officers indicated they would make an arrest, 16 percent would seek mental health treatment for the suspect and 8 percent would attempt to resolve the situation informally.
The effect of veteran status had borderline statistical significance on whether an arrest would be made. When the suspect is identified in the vignette as a combat veteran, officers indicated a 6 percent lower likelihood of arrest, a 10 percent higher likelihood of being taken for treatment and a 3 percent increased likelihood of informal resolution.
“A substantial portion of the officers surveyed would favor mental health treatment, but when it comes down to it, the majority would still make an arrest, veteran or not,” Markowitz says. “That decision may have something to do with the limited availability of mental health services, which vary across communities.
“Often, the only way a person will end up receiving mental health services is by going to jail first, and that points to the failure of our mental health care system more generally,” Markowitz adds. “Our country has more people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons than in all of the hospitals combined.”
Factors other than veteran status appear to carry somewhat more weight in officer decision-making. For example, when presented with the vignettes, the likelihood of arrest increased substantially when a suspect is non-compliant or when a victim has sustained an injury.
The researchers did, however, find that officers who themselves are combat veterans are likely to be most sympathetic to the suspect.
Police officers who are combat veterans indicated they were 22 percent less likely to make an arrest in the vignette situation than officers without military experience, and 25 percent less likely than officers with military, but not combat, experience.
“In general, it seems that it is not military service but combat experience that leads to a greater preference for treatment rather than punitive measures,’ Markowitz said. “Combat veterans have a special understanding that others might not.”
In light of the study, Markowitz advocates for addressing mental health service gaps for veterans to provide another option to officers who feel formal responses are not the most appropriate or effective.
“Options to address this service gap, particularly for veterans reluctant to seek services, include expanding peer-crisis intervention programs similar to those used in community mental health settings or special veterans’ courts,” Markowitz says. “These types of interventions may facilitate entry into mental health treatment and diversion programs, with the goals of community safety, facilitating recovery and avoiding costly incarceration and damaging criminal records.”