Collecting Information about a Suspects Mental Health

Question MarkPolice Officers In Portland, Oregon making snap judgments regarding the mental status of suspects as they are arrested. This is a response that has been put in place following a 2014 settlement the Portland PD made with the federal government. The goal of this agreement was to significantly improve the way in which the department treated those who have any form of mental illness. The officers include this information on a form that is not part or their standard police report, but the suspect’s defense attorneys are entitled to have a copy.


Is This a Good Idea?
While having access to this type of information may make the job of the officer and the prosecuting attorney much easier, there is some concern regarding how this information may end up being used by those who have access to it. It is quite possible that the information could end up being used in ways in which it was not intended. In fact, the information may end up benefitting the defense team more than the arresting officer and prosecution team.

However, prosecutors and law enforcement officers all agree that this information could ultimately provide far more information about the context of the situation in which they were arrested and provide a wide range of essential information that might otherwise be hard to come by. The Oregon branch of the ACLU, while understanding the potential value of collecting this type of information is highly concerned about the possibility that prosecutors may use it to help them decide which charges they should consider pursuing and which ones to drop.

How the ACLU Sees It
The ACLU is also concerned that the information may be used to stigmatize the person who has been arrested, a fact that may have a significant impact on the outcome of any case in court. According to Jann Carson, associate director of the Oregon ACLU, “Whenever the government is collecting data about someone we have the usual concerns about who has access to this data. Does someone ever get to correct data they might believe is incorrect about them? How is the data shared? Does it live on permanently attached to someone’s name?”

In response to this, Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Laws stated that he hopes the police department will take necessary steps to keep this type of information strictly confidential and sees the collection of this type of information as a positive step towards improving the manner in which officers respond to situations that involve suspects with any one of the many different forms of mental illness.

Burnim went on to say, “If you want to do a better job, one of the things you want to consider is collecting meaningful data. And now that we have computers, you can collect a lot of useful data that helps you understand what’s going on and how you can do a better job.”

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