People living with mental illness have an important role to play in collaborating with law enforcement and service providers. They may have many types of experiences interacting with law enforcement. Justin’s story, below, describes both challenging and helpful interactions. Stories like Justin’s are a starting point for learning about the perspectives and concerns of people living with mental illness. To learn more, reach out to people living with mental illness and their organizations in your community.
Justin Volpe is a Certified Recovery Peer Specialist for Miami-Dade County's 11th Judicial Criminal Mental Health Project Jail Diversion Program. He’s helped over 1000 people with mental illness get out of jail and into treatment and helped train over 2500 law enforcement officers.
I’m from New Jersey. My grandfather and my grandmother on my father’s side were mentally ill, and my uncle had schizophrenia. My grandpa got really deep into the Jehovah’s Witnesses and thought he was a prophet from God. He started a religious cult in Jersey in the ‘60s. I was raised in the cult until I was about 10 years old.
I had a lot of trauma in my upbringing that wasn’t addressed. In high school, I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, and I think that triggered my genetic predisposition to mental illness. My drug use got really intense.
After high school, my brother convinced me to move to Miami to be near him. From 2003-2007, I held about 20 different jobs, moved about ten times and was bouncing around because of my addiction. It was very hard for me to keep a stable job. I started to get sick with mental health symptoms when I was 22. I experienced extreme paranoia and had both auditory and visual hallucinations. Sometimes I had insomnia for two days at a time and then I would sleep for 16 hours straight. I had anxiety and panic attacks. I had manic mood swings, irrational decision making, and poor impulse control. I started to rely on heavier drugs to cope with my symptoms.
During the summer of 2006, I completely decompensated. I would walk in the alleys because I couldn’t deal with people or look them in the eye. I was paranoid about cops. I wore the same clothes every day. I stank. I got really skinny; I was 130 pounds soaking wet. I was able to keep a job in a restaurant and keep my apartment, but I was a mess. My family convinced me to go to outpatient rehab, but I was turned off because they were talking about God and the twelve steps and a higher power. I didn’t want to hear about that because of my upbringing.
During the brief period when I was in rehab and sober, I had an encounter with law enforcement. I was walking on the street in front of my apartment late at night, looking to buy cigarettes. I wasn’t on any drugs, but I was pretty symptomatic, so I was probably waving my hands and talking to myself. There was a taxi parked on my street and it turned out to be an undercover cop. The cop pinned me to the car and accused me of buying crack cocaine. I tried to tell him I was just buying cigarettes, but he searched me and kept accusing me.
After he let me go, the cop stayed in the alley in front of my apartment. I went inside and took a knife and sharpened it as sharp as I could. I held it against my face until he left. In my mind, if the police were going to arrest me for something that I didn’t do, I was going to cut myself and say they did it. It was totally irrational.
I think back now and wonder if the officer had been CIT-trained if he could have seen I was symptomatic and taken me to the hospital. I wasn’t committing a crime; he might have figured out that I needed help.
There were other times I interacted with police that went well. That same summer, I would go play basketball in the park when I was restless and couldn’t sleep. One night, I was very symptomatic, and hanging out in Flamingo Park at 6 a.m., and this cop came and played basketball with me for an hour. He was saying things like, “Hey man, what are you doing with your life? I know you can do better than this.”
At the time I was very defensive. It didn’t matter how symptomatic I was, I had to beat him at basketball. But it stays with you when someone reaches out to you and treats you with respect. His words of encouragement were very impactful. The police don’t always realize the power they have in sharing their wisdom and encouragement. I remember it 13 years later.
I’ve been in recovery and clean for the past 11 years, sober for six years. In that time, I’ve trained over 2500 police officers as part of our crisis intervention team (CIT) program. I have had the privilege of training the officer who arrested me and who saw me at my lowest. The officers see people at their worst constantly. They don’t see people in recovery. They have really hard jobs, and it’s harder if they think everyone’s on drugs, everyone’s committing crimes all the time. They need to see more people in recovery.