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Neglected Issues -- Police Killings of the Mentally Ill and the Lack of Police and Mental Health Relations

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Co-authored by Ashley Fresenius

We have witnessed over the past several years increasing concern over violence by the mentally ill. Major incidents such as Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona and Virginia Tech have all drawn wide scale public attention through the media and have increased public stigma against the mentally ill. Often overlooked in these discussions are the continuous major financial cuts experienced by the mental health system and the subsequent act of dramatically reducing services. Additionally, for the past twenty years we have criminalized mental illness and it is estimated that nearly 700,000 or 1/3 of the 2.1 million people in jail and prison are mentally ill, most of whom are incarcerated for minimal charges. Police have become the mental health crisis providers throughout the United States and are often inadequately trained for the task ahead. Lastly, the relationships between local police and mental health providers are often weak or non-existent.

Police are appropriately concerned about the dangers they face dealing with the mentally ill, especially as the number of encounters grow. A report indicates that half of police shootings involve people with mental illness. John Grohol of Psych Central elaborates:

perhaps more folks with mental illness are roaming the streets because of the relentless state budget cuts for those who are in the most need in our society "At the same time, there's broad agreement that an inadequate public mental health care system, further eroded by $4.53 billion in state-level budget cuts since 2009, has put police on the front lines of a crisis in our society that few officers are adequately trained to handle. As a result, police officials across the country report spending more time and money responding to calls for service that involve mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people, but little data has been gathered to quantify the strain on public resources."

One result of the encounters between police and emotionally disturbed persons is the number of police killings of the mentally ill have grown. Grohol's recent article in Psych Central (cited above) entitled, "Half of Police Shootings Involve people with Mental Illness" states, "there are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week, 'a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems." An example of these tragic incidents includes: six police officers in Michigan who gun down a homeless, possibly schizophrenic in a parking lot who refused to drop a small folding knife, a police officer fatally shooting a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic as he crosses the street while carving wood with a pocket knife and an incident in Oregon where police were checking on a man who was threatening suicide and wound up killing him with a single gunshot in the back. Tragedies similar to these have been happening more and more frequently across the United States causing devastation to families, the mental health community as well as the police officers.

A particularly tragic incident occurred in New York City recently where a woman called the police about a family member who was seen to be an emotionally disturbed person. When police arrived the man who was called about was found on his fire escape, screaming. A police officer saw the man from the ground and tasered him at which point the man fell to the ground to his death. The despondent police officer committed suicide a few weeks after this incident resulting in a tragedy for both families.

To begin to address this issue, the United States Department of Justice has begun an in depth investigation and actions in several large cities noted for these incidents; such as Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington and New Orleans, Louisiana. This is a useful start however; much more attention needs to be paid in the areas of better training of police officers and the need for local mental health advocacy organizations to link and collaborate with police agencies to advocate for change. An effort to train police officers in the CIT model (crisis intervention team model (and/or other training models) would help to not only to provide officers with the knowledge and training to deal with potential danger and crises when dealing with the mentally ill but would also help to foster the alliance necessary between law enforcement and mental health agencies. However, the track record for mental health/police collaboration has been weak and with the cutbacks in mental health services, the future may not be promising.