Helpful Hints: Paranoid Behavior
As indicated previously, basic distrust is the core characteristic of paranoid behavior. Recognition of this is critical to police officers who must respond to it. Because paranoid persons consider significant people in their lives to have been undependable or rejecting, they are apt to view any authority figure or representative of “the system,” including officers, as undependable and hostile. Consequently, officers should expect that paranoid persons would be suspicious of anything they say and will regard officers with dislike and resentment when approached.
This attitude and behavior can be characteristic not only of people with paranoid disorders, but also of people who feel isolated from the larger society (such as the homeless, minorities, immigrants, and so on). Three other groups of people may evidence paranoid behavior when approached by officers: people who are having a paranoid reaction to drugs, legal or illegal; people suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, such as combat veterans (described in chapter 8); and people on certain drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines, and in some cases marijuana and hashish (Dalby and Duncan 1987), which can all produce symptoms of severe paranoia. How do officers approach paranoid people? How do they counter this basic distrust?
First, what paranoids need most is understanding and acceptance without condescension. Because they are hypervigilant, they are likely to be particularly sensitive to an attitude of disbelief. When they have delusions, they require someone who will listen with courtesy to their beliefs and make no judgment about whether they are true or false. Offer no argument to the paranoid; convey no impression that he or she is crazy. They require attention and acknowledgment (not of the content of their beliefs, but of their feelings). Usually the safest way to approach paranoid persons is by assuming a friendly but distant neutrality.
Second, officers must remember that paranoid people are usually extremely anxious. Consequently, they must be approached in a way that does not heighten these anxieties further. If paranoids’ anxiety increases, their vigilance also will increase, as will the possibility of a violent reaction.
Third, officers should be aware that because paranoids sometimes misinterpret reality, they may misinterpret officers’ intentions. Officers should proceed slowly and with caution, constantly reassuring paranoid persons that they are there to assist and protect them.
In situations where officers have continuous contact with paranoid people, it is important to be alert to any changes in the people’s thinking that indicates an increasing severity in their condition and a possible eruption of violence. Officers should look for focusing of delusional content. For example, if a paranoid who regularly makes complaints to the police begins to change her statements from vague “theys” to specific individuals or groups, this is a danger sign that she may feel forced to take action to protect herself.
If it is necessary to take paranoids into custody, officers should not order them around. Officers must not frighten them with mace or other weapons, for paranoid persons may panic and react violently.
However, while attempting to gain paranoid people’s trust, officers must never let down their guard. They must remain alert while guarding against the communication of any hostility, fear, or suspiciousness. Paranoid individuals are very sensitive to others’ feelings toward them. Officers must also remember that paranoids can be suicidal (chapter 15) as well as homicidal (chapters 10 and 14). In chapter 10 we discussed in detail the characteristics of the homicidal paranoid schizophrenic.
In a study that investigated the arrest records of paranoid schizophrenic psychiatric patients who attempted to see the U.S. president or other highly visible political figures because of delusional beliefs, it was found that one in seven had been arrested for murder or aggravated assault during the nine to twelve years following their discharge from mental hospitals where they had been committed (Shore, Filson, and Johnson 1988). The potential for homicidal violence is always present in paranoid individuals.
This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.