The General Public Holds a More Positive Perception of the Police than Do People with Mental Illness

Forensic-Training-AcademyThe general public holds a more positive perception of the police than do people with mental illness. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2014, Vol. 20, No. 4, 431-442


Police perceptions and contact among people with mental illnesses: Comparisons with a general population survey


Sarah L. Desmarais, North Carolina State University
James D. Livingston , Saint Mary’s University
Caroline L. Greaves, British Columbia Mental Health & Substance Use Services
Kiersten L. Johnson, North Carolina State University
Simon Verdun-Jones, Simon Fraser University
Rick Parent, Simon Fraser University
Johann Brink, British Columbia Mental Health & Substance Use Services


Though studies have surveyed police officers’ perceptions of people with mental illnesses (PMI), few have examined perceptions held by PMI regarding the police, and none have compared them with those held by the general population. This study sought to (a) examine perceptions of police held by PMI, (b) compare them to perceptions held by the general population, and (c) explore whether differences between PMI and general population perceptions are attributable to contact with the police in the past year. We drew data from a survey of 244 PMI and the 2009 Canadian General Social Survey (GSS) (Brennan, 2011). Both surveys administered the same items querying perceptions of and contact with the police in the prior 12 months. GSS participants were individually matched to PMI participants on sociodemographic characteristics (n = 225 per group). Overall, participants held fairly positive perceptions of the police, but perceptions held by GSS participants were more positive than those held by PMI participants. PMI participants were more likely than GSS participants to have contact with the police in the prior 12 months. In multivariate models, perceptions differed between PMI and GSS participants for police performance in being approachable and treating people fairly, and overall confidence in police; police contact was not associated with perceptions nor did it moderate effects of participant group. Consistent with the procedural justice framework, fair and equitable treatment appears to be of primary relevance to PMI perceptions of the police. Further efforts are needed to improve PMI perceptions of the police in these areas.


attitudes, confidence, police, contact, mental illness

Summary of the Research

People with mental illnesses (PMI) have frequent contact with the police under various circumstances. A substantial proportion of police contact with PMI takes the form of mental health crises and the civil commitment process. Regardless of the reason, PMI often come into contact with the police at rates that are much higher than the general population.

“The present study examined the perceptions of police held by PMI, compared them with findings of a general population survey conducted in the same geographic area using the same questions, and explored whether differences, if any, between PMI and general population perceptions of the police may be attributable to direct contact with the police in the prior 12 months” (p. 433). Contact with the police in the past 12 months was utilized as an explanatory variable for police perception among PMI participants. Data from 225 PMI participants and 225 General Social Survey (GSS) participants were analyzed. Participant’s age, sex, minority status, education, household income, geographic location, and primary language were coded. Additionally, primary psychiatric diagnosis, history of involuntary hospitalization and history of problematic substance abuse were coded. Participants were individually matched based on age, sex, minority status educated, household income, and geographic location.

Police Contact

“Overall, 60.0% of PMI participants (n = 135) and 40.0% of GSS participants (n = 90) reported that they had contact with the police in the prior 12 months in the context of a public information session, a traffic violation, being a victim of a crime, witnessing a crime, or perpetrating a crime. The crude odds ratio was 2.28 (CI 95% = 1.56–3.32, p < .001), indicating a twofold increase in the likelihood of police contact for at least one of these five reasons among PMI compared with GSS participants” (p. 435). “Specifically, compared with GSS participants, PMI participants were more than six times as likely to have contact with police as the victim of a crime (crude OR = 6.06, CI 95% = 3.39–10.84, p < .001) and five times as likely as a witness of a crime (crude OR = 5.32, CI 95% = 2.91–9.71, p < .001)” (p. 435).

Perceptions of the Police

Overall, both groups rated police perception fairly positive. A large percentage of both PMI and GSS participants indicated that the police were doing a good job across domains and reported a high level confidence in the police. However, significant differences were found between PMI and GSS participants in the following domains: enforcing laws, being approachable, supplying information to the public, and treating people fairly.

For these areas, PMI participants indicated less positive ratings than GSS participants. PMI participants were more likely to rate the police as doing a poor job in these identified fields than doing an average or a good job, in comparison to the GSS participant ratings. Contact with the police in the past 12 months did not play a significant role in individual perceptions. Perceptions of police, negative or positive, may have been instilled in individuals based on learning about police contact with other individuals.

“Multivariate analyses revealed that ratings of confidence in the police and evaluations of police performance in being approachable and treating people fairly were lower among PMI participants than among GSS participants. It is notable that group differences for perceptions associated with procedural justice (i.e., being approachable and treating people fairly) remained significant even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, but not for perceptions associated with instrumental justice (i.e., enforcing laws, responding promptly, and supplying information to the public). These differential effects are consistent with past research suggesting that perceptions of police may differ in meaningful ways between individuals or between groups along the dimensions of procedural and instrumental justice” (p. 440).

Translating Research into Practice

Incongruities regarding police perception were established between PMI and GSS participants in three main areas–being approachable, treating people fairly, and overall confidence–these findings suggest the need for improvements in interactions between PMI and police. Further efforts are needed to improve PMI perceptions of the police. PMI rated police the lowest for treating people fairly. The nature and quality of the interaction between the police and PMI can be influenced by the perceptions police officers and PMI hold of one another. “Indeed, police officers often are the first responders to situations involving PMI and, in these situations, police officers regularly engage in ‘the work of social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, and others’ (p. 372). Consequently, police officers have come to be referred to as ‘de facto mental health service providers’ and ‘psychiatrists in blue’ (Menzies, 1987)” (p. 432). Perceptions of police officers and PMI can play a significant role in determining how interactions amongst them unfold.

Education is an important component for ensuring that PMI and police can effectively interact with each other. Police officers come into frequent contact with PMI as these individuals report being victims of crimes, request assistance from police, or have contact with the police during mental health crises. It is critical to reduce crime perpetration and victimization in this population; thus, clinicians should be aware of the importance of incorporating community safety into PMI treatment plans. Educating PMI on police duties and the functions of law enforcement may provide these individuals with a better understanding and better prepare them in the event they come in contact with the police in the future. Education regarding the policies that law enforcement agencies maintain for events like mental health crises may also prove beneficial. In addition, awareness of community programs offered by the police may also promote harmonious relationships.

“Further, the high rates of contact between PMI and police emphasize the importance of police officers having the skills to increase the likelihood that interactions are positive in nature, regardless of the reason for or the outcome of the interaction. Thus, efforts should be made to implement specialized police training in methods that promote perceptions of procedurally fair treatment among PMI, including but not limited to Crisis intervention training” (p. 439).

Offering specialized police trainings may assist with promoting procedural justice and perceptions of fair treatment among PMI. Educating police officers on how to develop positive approaches when initially encountering an individual with mental illness may assist in strengthening the interaction between the two parties. Effective communication between the police and PMI is important and enabling PMI to be involved in the process of resolving their problems may increase their feelings of being treated fairly.

Training police officers on effective initial interaction techniques and educating them on a broad range of mental health diagnoses, symptoms, and coping skills might allow for both parties to feel comfortable interacting and allow for smooth proceedings.

“Encouragingly, findings suggest that organizational shifts in policies and implementation of programs to teach police officers skills, such as empathy, active listening, perspective taking and nonstigmatizing attitudes have had a positive effect on their interactions. Whether the trend continues and, ultimately, contributes to increased willingness of PMI to obey the law, to cooperate with the police, and to seek assistance from police remains to be seen and will require ongoing efforts to support these policies and programs at individual and organizational levels” (p. 441).

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Special Contributor

Contributions to this post were made by Amanda Beltrani.BeltraniAmanda

Amanda M. Beltrani is a first-year graduate student in the Forensic Psychology masters program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her professional interests include forensic assessments and criminal matter evaluations. Amanda plans to continue her studies in a doctoral program after completion of her Masters degree.

Psychopathic Personality Misunderstood by Potential Jury Members

Jury members misunderstand certain aspects of psychopathic personality, appearing to believe that psychopathy is characterized by psychotic symptoms. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5, 490-500lhb

“So, What Is a Psychopath?” Venireperson Perceptions, Beliefs, and Attitudes About Psychopathic Personality


Shannon Toney Smith, Texas A&M University
John F. Edens, Texas A&M University
John Clark, University of Texas-Tyler
Allison Rulseh, Texas A&M University


This study surveyed over 400 individuals attending jury duty regarding various perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs they had concerning psychopathic personality (psychopathy). The protocol included (a) prototype ratings of what participants considered to be core features, using the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP) prototype rating scale; (b) questions concerning knowledge and beliefs about psychopathy (e.g., prevalence in society); and (c) attitudinal scales concerning potential associated features (e.g., criminality, rehabilitation potential), etiological underpinnings, and moral judgments and legal sanctions. Consistent with results of earlier studies using expert raters, jury panel members rated most of the 33 individual CAPP items and all 6 CAPP scales as at least moderately prototypical, with Self and Dominance domains obtaining the highest mean ratings. Many participants also strongly endorsed symptoms of psychosis (e.g., delusions) as prototypical of psychopathy. Despite this, they viewed psychopaths as responsible for their own actions, as capable of determining right from wrong, and as generally not “insane.” Our findings indicate that jury panel members view the prototypical psychopath as highly dominant, self-focused, and lacking in remorse and empathy and reinforce the need for expert witnesses to clearly differentiate between psychopathy and psychotic-spectrum disorders.


psychopathy, jurors, CAPP, legal decision-making, attitudes

Summary of the Research

The current research surveyed 400 individuals who had been summoned for jury duty regarding their beliefs and perceptions of psychopathy using the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP).

Existing research regarding public perceptions of psychopathy reveal confusion between psychopathy and psychosis/psychotic disorders. The Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) has received widespread support as a means of operationalizing and assessing the features of psychopathy. Earlier research by Edens and colleagues (2013) asked individuals who were summoned for jury duty to read a vignette about a convicted capital murderer, and later rate the extent to which this defendant was psychopathic using PCL-R-like labels and other relevant traits. The results revealed that, “community members associate some nonpathological and even potentially adaptive traits with [psychopathy] that have not been emphasized in the PCL-R model” (p. 491).

The current research study utilized the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP), as it “differs from the PCL-R in its more extensive focus on cognitive style and other personality traits argued to be central to psychopathy” (p. 491), thereby encompassing a broader array of characteristics more readily thought of by a wider span of individuals.

Participants in this study were given the opportunity to score CAPP items on a 7-point scale, rating how typical they believed each item to be of psychopathic personality (1 = not typical; 7 = very typical). A set of items were intended to be used as content foils, “that are for the most part inversely related to traits theorists typically have associated with psychopathy” (p. 493). Embedded in this list of items were traits that represented psychotic symptoms, since there is a history of laypersons using psychosis to describe a psychopath. Additional open-ended questions were included to gain a sense of where most individuals get their ideas about psychopaths, who they think of when they hear this term, whether they believe they know a psychopath, and how common this construct is in society.

The five highest rated items, most typical of psychopathy, were Manipulative, Lacks Remorse, Self-Centered, Self-Justifying, and Domineering. A few CAPP items were not viewed as particularly indicative of psychopathy, with mean ratings below four on items such as Lacks Planfulness, Lacks Concentration, and Lacks Perseverance.

“In contrast to the generally high rating of CAPP items, participants rated none of the foil items as highly prototypical, though one (Strange) approached this cutoff. Only one foil (Perfectionistic) was rated as moderately prototypical. Consistent with the relatively high ratings for Strange, however, participants rated the three psychotic spectrum (Delusional Beliefs, Peculiar Behavior, Disturbed Thinking) items as highly prototypical—with Delusional Beliefs actually rated as the third highest item in the entire protocol” (p. 494).

Translating Research into Practice

“Layperson perceptions of psychopathy are an understudied and important area of research because community perceptions and attitudes about mentally disordered offenders in general can impact public policy, and there is both experimental and naturalistic evidence that juror attitudes about whether a defendant is psychopathic influence the outcome of civil and criminal cases” (p. 497).

“Overall, jury panel members tended to view the prototypical psychopath as highly dominant (manipulative, domineering, and deceitful), self-focused (self-centered, entitled, self-justifying, and unique), and lacking in remorse and empathy for others—consistent with many classic models of the core features of psychopathy” (p. 497).

An “important finding [of this research] relates to jury panel members’ high endorsement of psychotic items as prototypically psychopathic. This is generally consistent with previous findings indicating that laypersons might fail to discriminate between psychopathy and psychosis but goes a step further to suggest a more pronounced confusion over specific symptoms (e.g., delusions) rather than simply conflating labels with a root term ‘psycho.’ This suggests a more basic misunderstanding of the disorders at a conceptual level” (p. 497).

“These findings reinforce the necessity for expert witnesses to clearly elucidate during testimony that psychosis and psychopathy are not comparable disorders and that the latter is not associated with being out of touch with reality” (p. 497).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Interestingly, despite participants’ relatively high endorsement of psychotic features as prototypical of psychopathy, they still tended to view psychopaths as responsible for their actions, not insane per se, and not generally in need of hospitalization. This suggests that even if jurors do tend to conflate psychopathy and psychosis, they continue to view these individuals as having a relatively high degree of cognitive or volitional control over their behavior. If anything, [these] results suggest that individuals suffering from genuine psychosis who become involved in the legal system may be unfairly disadvantaged by their disorder being confused with psychopathic traits (e.g., deceitful, self-centered, and remorseless) by the typical juror” (pp. 497-498). It remains crucial for experts to be clear in delineating what psychopathy is and how it might impact and individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

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Special Contributor

ZappalaMarissa - PictureContributions to this post were made by Marissa Zappala.

Marissa is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice located in New York City. She completed her undergraduate work at Penn State University, where she obtained a B.A. Psychology and B.A. Criminology. Her aspirations involve the pursuit of a Clinical Forensic PhD program, and an eventual career in Forensic Psychological Evaluation. To contact Marissa, please e-mail