According to a series of guidelines published by The U.S. Department of Justice, individuals suffering from some form of mental-illness are 4 times as likely to be be killed in confrontations with police officers than the general population. Originally published in 2006, the guidelines serve to offer law enforcement agencies strategies for dealing with the mentally ill peacefully. The document is loaded with statistics and advice that do not appear to be headed by most law enforcement agencies.
As it is from the perspective of law enforcement, the guidelines, written by Gary Gordner, acknowledges the dangers law enforcement officers face when mental illness is a factor. In 2002, 982 out of 58,0066 police officers reported being assaulted by someone with mental illness. Between 1993 and 2002, 15 of 636 officers were killed. To put this in perspective, these statistics “represent one out of every 59 assaults on officers and 1 out of every 42 officers feloniously killed.” Police and federal agents may have reason to experience fear and trepidation when dealing with the mentally ill, but the odds of survival clearly do not favor the latter. Between 1994 and 1999 Los Angeles police recorded shooting someone with mental illness 37 times while killing 25. (The problem is not exclusively American. Between 1998 and 2001, nearly half of 25 shooting incidents in the United Kingdom “involved someone with a known history of mental illness problems.)
How law enforcement officials deal with those they believe are mentally ill is obscured in the the Miriam Carey shooting, rather most coverage is preoccupied with her mental illness in and of itself and not if law enforcement responded intelligently. Although members of Carey’s family claim she suffered from postpartum depression, they also claim she was lucid, recovering, and no threat to anyone. Investigators say she behaved irrationally. Although the theatricality of this incident has made it a headline grabber, it is not the only time this year police have handled such incidents in a questionable matter. Earlier in September a police officer was dispatched to Baldwin South Intermediate School in Quincy, Illinois. to deal with a 9 year old autistic boy, Roger Parker Jr. This was done at the behest of a school official. Instead of de-escelating the situation, the officer arrested the boy. In the process, he took a kick to the nose, and photographs indicate Roger suffered at least one black eye. (If the officer had known that autistic children don’t take kindly to touching, especially from strangers, he could have saved everyone a lot of pain.) The threat and execution of an arrest or incarceration are of limited effectiveness when dealing with mental illness.
However, these two episodes fall outside the normal profile of altercations involving mental illness. Most conflicts involving mental illness are usually connected to alcohol and drug abuse or homelessness. Researchers in Honolulu “found that 74 percent of law violators who the police believed to have a mental disorder were also homeless.” In 2012 a Houston police officer shot and killed “a mentally-ill, wheelchair bound, one-armed, one-legged man.” The officer had been called to a group home to deal with the man, Brian Clounch. Clounch waved a sharp object around aggressively. The object was a pen. A Houston police department spokesperson claimed the officer responded out of fear.
Many officers simply are not equipped to deal with the mentally ill. There are strategies that work though, peaceful strategies. First, generalist police officers need more basic training in the plights and issues surrounding the mentally ill. Second, law enforcement agencies should place greater restrictions on deadly force tactics. Shoot first is not a viable solution. Officers reacting out of fear or choose to use physical force do more harm than good. Third, law enforcement departments need mental health specialists. They need police officers trained specifically for mental health related situations. A program developed in Memphis, Tennessee has seen amazing results in controlling mental health related incidents. These specialists are empowered to “assume on-scene command as they arrive.”
If the job of law enforcement is to serve and protect, then this includes serving and protecting those that cannot always protect themselves. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a criminal. It doesn’t make one a suspected terrorist. If law enforcement divisions will take the time to properly train officers, they will promote a safe environment and foster trust within their communities. If they don’t take the initiative, they risk looking like cowboys and bullies, when in truth they are really just scared. This fear is indicative of a larger anxiety in the American public. In a society quick to judge, mental illness is conflated with evil and disease. More often than not though, the mentally ill are the victims rather than the perpetrators. When they are the perpetrators,they are deserving of respect and patience, not reckless quick fixes.
Written By David Arroyo