Suppose you're taking a stroll down K Street during your lunch hour when suddenly one of the homeless men who frequent the block jumps into the middle of the traffic and begins banging on the windows of passing cars and buses and screaming about the end of the world. Or think about a neighbor, depressed over the loss of a job, who barricades his house one evening and starts to fire a rifle out the attic window. Consider even a situation involving no danger -- a deranged person wanders into a department store, lies down in the housewares department and refuses to get up. In each of these cases, the ordinary citizen has one immediate response: call the cops.

The police, with increasing frequency, are called upon to deal with the mentally ill, even in situations where no crime is involved. The trend toward deinstitutionalization of mental patients has added to this responsibility and, at the same time, reduced the options available to law enforcement officers in dealing with these cases. Some cities and counties have begun to require special training programs to teach police how to cope with the problems of the mentally ill, but most jurisdictions have no special manuals or courses. Now, the Police Executive Research Forum, with funding from the New York Community Trust and the National Institute of Justice, has published a report highlighting successful programs and suggesting guidelines for new ones.

Departments across the country offer an average of 4.3 hours of recruit training on methods of dealing with the mentally ill. Some do better, and three cities were commended in the Forum's report for exemplary programs. Galveston, Texas, for example, has a special unit staffed by officers who are also certified emergency medical technicians and mental health specialists. They respond, 24 hours a day, when needed. Madison, Wis., has no specialized unit, but gives each officer 20 hours of mental health training. Birmingham, Ala., has mental health community service personnel specially assigned to work with police. They provide on-site assistance and take responsibility for all case dispositions.

Good training programs will instruct police on how to recognize different types of mental disorders and will outline procedures for talking to, approaching, escorting and, if necessary, subduing the mentally ill. Special guidance is needed on the use of force. Effective policies will cut back on paper work and repeat calls, facilitate humane treatment and protect both the public and the police themselves. The Forum report offers practical guidance in dealing with a problem of growing importance to peace officers.