Mental Health Attitudes and Officers’ Perceptions of Danger and Use of Force




Martinez, Cristal

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Law enforcement in the United States have a great deal of discretion when responding to incidents involving people with mental illness. Police officers respond to persons based on their training yet act on their perceptions and assumptions of persons with a mental illness can influence their decisions of use of force. In some cases, persons with a mental illness can be confused as a person under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which can result in an arrest (Bittner, 1967; Lamb et al., 2002; Lamb & Weinberger, 2002; Menzies, 1987; Patch & Arrigo, 1999 Ruiz & Miller, 2004; Teplin, 2000; Teplin & Pruett, 1992; Wells & Schafer, 2006). This study adds to our understanding of how police officers respond in situations where mental illness might be a contributing factor in a police-citizen interaction. Law enforcement (n = 54) and undergraduate criminal justice students (n = 174) completed a mental health attitudes questionnaire, and those scores were compared to responses to case scenarios. The responses assessed one’s perceived level of dangerousness and the recommended use of force. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, one condition had vignettes that described that described and individual with signs of mental illness, the other condition included vignettes that described and individual without signs of mental illness. The hypotheses for the current study stated that more negative attitudes toward mental health would be related to officers and students interpreting the scenarios as more dangerous and warranting more use of force. For the law enforcement sample, we did not find a significant mediation effect of perceived dangerousness with police officers' attitudes toward the mentally ill and the use of force in both types of vignettes. The undergraduate sample had a significant relationship between perceived dangerousness and the use of force.



mental health, law enforcement, undergraduate students, dangerousness, use of force


Martinez, C. (2023). Mental health attitudes and officers’ perceptions of danger and use of force (Unpublished thesis). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.


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