By Todd Duncan, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist

Response To Non-Criminal Barricades

Law enforcement officers are increasingly encountering difficult and often complex situations involving individuals in the community experiencing mental health crisis. Despite intentions to help the subject in crisis, we sometimes see law enforcement officers employing tactics in these situations that result in tragic and often avoidable outcomes. In this month’s Safety Short we will review the concept of tactical disengagement involving barricaded subject calls where there is no underlying crime and explore ways to safely resolve these incidents as effectively as possible. It is important to recognize the distinction between an armed barricaded suspect wanted for a crime and a barricaded subject who has not committed a crime but has expressed the desire to harm him/herself. Threatening or attempting suicide is not a crime, and suicidal or mentally ill subjects do not forfeit any constitutional protections.

Initial Response

The priority when responding to non-criminal barricade situations is the preservation of life and protection of bystanders, law enforcement personnel, and the subject from the risk of injury whenever possible. During the initial response, the ICEN method—isolate, contain, evacuate, and negotiate—can buy valuable time to develop emergency response plans while evaluating key information including:

  • Does the subject have access to a weapon?
  • Is the subject in a position to harm anyone else, or have they expressed an intent to do so?
  • Has the subject committed a crime, and if so, what is the seriousness of the offense?
  • Are more resources needed/available, i.e. additional deputies, EMS on standby, Crisis Negotiation Team, less lethal options, shield, canine, etc.

Be Cautious of the Urge To “Do Something”

Law enforcement officers are protectors by nature, so it is only natural that we feel compelled to “do something” in crisis situations. But when responding to a barricaded or suicidal subject who has not committed a serious crime and is not an immediate threat to anyone other than themselves, the best response may be to withdraw from the situation if reasonable attempts to negotiate are unsuccessful. This may seem ill advised or counterintuitive, but in reality, it may be the safest response for all involved, including the subject. It may also be the most legally defensible option as law enforcement officers generally do not have a constitutional duty to keep a person from harming himself/herself. A detention under NRS 71-919 is permissive but not mandatory and must be based upon probable cause to believe the person is mentally ill and dangerous and presents a substantial risk of serious harm to himself/herself or others.

Avoid Creating the Danger

Three critical questions during the initial assessment of a barricaded subject call are:

  1. Who is at risk?
  2. Who is causing that risk?
  3. What is necessary to eliminate or reduce that risk?

It is important to avoid increasing the danger to the person in crisis, unless the subject poses an immediate risk to others. Given the nature and emotion involved in these types of calls, it can be easy to accelerate the operational tempo and bring the situation to a flashpoint unnecessarily. An example of this is making a warrantless entry into the subject’s home when there is no underlying crime or immediate threat to anyone other than the subject themselves. It is equally important that deputies balance their capability and training with the needs of the situation. In these situations, tactical disengagement, i.e. the decision to leave, delay contact, delay custody, or plan to make contact at a different time and under different circumstances, may be the safest, most prudent option for all involved.

Avoid Creating Special Relationships

While law enforcement officers typically do not have a constitutional duty to protect members of the public from harm, special relationships can create a duty of care. Common examples include when a person is taken into custody, during transport in a law enforcement vehicle, and while in jail. A special relationship can also occur when a deputy or agency makes specific promises of protection that are relied on and result in liability if harm occurs when they are not fulfilled. In the context of a suicidal person call, deputies must avoid making any promises or assurances that they or the agency will prevent the subject from harming themselves.

Gather All the Facts

Similar to SWAT operations, intelligence is critical in minimizing threats and responding effectively to barricaded or suicidal subjects. In addition to the tactical considerations listed above, the following needs to be determined quickly: What is the subject’s purpose and intent? Does the subject have a history of mental illness that might add another level of concern? Is this really a law enforcement matter, or more a mental health matter? Do you have legal justification and is there an immediate need for what you are considering such as making entry into a home? Taking the time to gather important information like this will help you make sound, legally defensible decisions. Focusing on practical, lawful objectives and being aware of the urgency emotions can create in these situations will reduce the likelihood of taking action that puts you or the subject at more risk.

The Decision to Disengage

If the decision is made to tactically disengage, it should be made based on the totality of the circumstances and in consideration of the following:

  • The safety of the subject, others at the scene, and those who may arrive later.
  • Appropriate options to ensure the safety of the community, such as having deputies in unmarked vehicles remain in the area to conduct surveillance of the subject in question. Overtime is expensive, but it is a lot less expensive than a wrongful death lawsuit.
  • Consider providing a disengagement advisement to those who have been contacted during the incident, advising them the sheriff’s office is leaving the area and they should call 911 if they perceive a safety risk.
  • Prior to leaving the scene, deputies should gather all relevant information about the subject, family members, doctors, location intelligence, floor plan, neighbor contacts, etc.
  • Write a detailed report, including negotiation efforts, if and why negotiations failed, whether the subject committed a crime, the risk of making entry to take the subject into custody, reasons for disengagement, disengagement advisements issued, law enforcement involved, witnesses/third parties, and, if appropriate, the plan to re-engage.

It is important to remember that despite the best efforts of law enforcement officers responding to individuals experiencing mental health crisis, there is always the possibility the subject will take their own lives prior to or after a tactical disengagement. The goal of law enforcement in these situations is to do everything reasonably possible to resolve the incident safely and lawfully while avoiding creating unnecessary danger to anyone involved.

Additional Resources:
Article: When Should Law Enforcement Leave from an Armed Suicidal Barricade?
Police 1 podcast: Response To Non-Criminal Barricade Calls
LAPD Tactical Disengagement Training Bulletin
Savage Training Group