The thin blue line of mental health : mediated representations of police use of force in mental health crisis interventions

  • Katrina Clifford

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This research examines the ways in which police officers and bereaved family members make sense of their lived experience of the fatal police-involved shooting of a mentally ill individual in crisis in the context of news media representations of these critical incidents. Fatal mental health crisis interventions are – by virtue of their circumstances – highly controversial and subject to different, often competing, interpretations between key stakeholders. This research adopts a critical realist approach to identify and explore these divergent interpretive frameworks in the context of ‘risk communication’ (Blood, Pirkis & Francis,2004). It examines the ways in which police use of lethal force is typically framed in news media coverage of fatal mental health crisis interventions, and the media’s contribution to public understandings of contemporary policing and mental illness. Central to this is a qualitative interpretive framing analysis of the news media coverage of the fatal police-involved shooting of a mentally ill man, Paul Klein, on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, in May 1998. A critique of the news frames constructed by print and broadcast news media is offered in relation to the personal testimonies of news media professionals, police officers, and bereaved family members involved in the critical incident. On the basis of this research and its comparison with more contemporary news frames of fatal mental health crisis interventions, it is shown that issues of risk, in particular, are often framed through news media and legal discourse in terms of technical expertise and public accountability, but they are dealt with by most individuals who have been involved in a fatal mental health crisis intervention at the local and subjunctive level in their everyday lives. The research argues that while the risks inherent to fatal mental health crisis interventions may therefore be real, they are also socially mediated and open to contestation as a result of the tensions between the ‘situated knowledge’ (Wynne,1996) of these key stakeholders, pre-existing institutional protocols, and the mediated representations of lived experience. A case in point is the personal trauma narratives of the individual police officers responsible for the fatal discharge of firearms, which have often been marginalised in news media reports of fatal mental health crisis interventions as a result of the rules of critical incident investigation. This has left these individuals vulnerable to harmful constructions of risk-based identities. The research considers the implications of this for police relationships with mentally ill individuals and for police agencies in terms of how they approach their interactions with vulnerable people in the community, while being in the media spotlight. The research also addresses the potential ‘news framing effects’ of these normative news framing practices on traumatised subjects, and the educative opportunities for news media in the construction of ‘public risk knowledge’ and community understandings of frontline policing and mental illness.
    Date of Award2012
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorWarwick Blood (Supervisor)

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