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Don’t Shoot–I’m Mentally Ill!

National Mental Health Awareness Week is here again. Unfortunately, what’s new since last year is not an improvement, unless you consider an upsurge in recent news reporting on police violence against the mentally ill to be a step in the right direction.

The Washington Post reported that 124 people shot to death in the U.S. by police in the first half of 2105 were mentally ill. On average, the police in the U.S. shot someone in a mental health crisis every 36 hours during those 6 months. On April 25 of that year, they shot 3 within 10 hours.

Those 124, ranging in age from 15 to 86, constitute one-quarter of all 462 people killed by police gunfire in that same time period. Official statistics only, of course.

Individuals are determined to be “seriously mentally ill” if they have recently expressed suicidal intention or if police or family members reported a history of mental illness. There were undoubtedly additional numbers of mentally ill people in fatal confrontations with police who had neither been diagnosed nor threatened suicide.  Maybe those people described by the media as  “withdrawn,” or “very quiet,”  had an undiagnosed psychiatric illness.

What did the Post discover by analyzing data on the mentally ill individuals in their study?

The mentally ill are more likely than “regular” criminals to have a non-lethal weapon.  Six held toy guns. Three in 10 had a blade weapon (knife or machete), but act is clearly less dangerous than a gun.  Only 3 police officers have been killed by blades in the past 10 years.

The New York Times  provided examples from 2014.  In Chicago Quintonio LeGrier, 19, was shot after brandishing a baseball bat.  In Denver Paul Castaway, 35, moved “dangerously close” to police while holding knife to his own throat.

In 45 cases of the 124, the police were called to get medical attention, often after the individual had tried and failed to get psychiatric treatment. Instead of medical attention, those 45 got a bullet, usually more than on

Are some mentally ill, especially suicidal or psychotic individuals, scary to the police? Sure. They were scary to their own relatives who called for help. Those relatives expected the police to know what to do.

Police recruits, however, receive on average 60 hours of gun training.  They receive 8 hours on de-escalation and 8 hours on working with the mentally ill. Their training in dealing with an armed suspect–shout stern commands, point weapon–is exactly the wrong advice in responding to a mentally ill person. So is putting a hand on the suspect’s shoulder.

The police officer overseeing  mental health response teams for the LA Police Department, Sandy Jo MacArthur, teaches her recruits that the mentally ill “do not process what is happening like normal criminal….A lot of white noise is in their head.”

In 2012 the Justice Department found, in response to the 2006 Portland, OR, shooting of James Chasse, Jr., 42–a schizophrenic– that the police had exhibited a “pattern or practice of unnecessary or unreasonable force during interactions with people who have or are perceived to have a mental illness.”

The Crisis Intervention Team (C.I.T.) was developed in response to the lack of police training. The mental illness response teams are trained to use distance and time.

The following scenario occurred after the Portland police department received C.I.T. training.  A 911 caller reported a man on a beach threatening passersby with a samurai sword.  The police arrived, keeping their distance.  The man threw a rock toward the beach where they stood. They shot him in the leg with a bean bag gun.  At 2:30 a.m., they “disengaged” and left the scene.  When they returned after dawn, he was gone.

As of April 25, 2015, 2700 police departments offered training in Crisis Intervention.The Bureau of Justice Statistics gives the number of local law enforcement departments as 15,400.  We’ve got a long way to go, and the job won’t be easy. The recent media attention to the problem may speed up the process. I sure hope so.

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One Response to Don’t Shoot–I’m Mentally Ill!

  1. billgncs October 7, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

    often it’s suicide by cop…

    I feel bad for policemen and women – because there is such a tiny window of time in which to assess and make a decision, in those conditions one must rely on their training.

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