In the first half of 2015, a total of 461 people were killed by police in the United States. Of those killed, 123 “were in the throes of mental or emotional crisis,” and over 50 were “explicitly suicidal.”
These numbers are part of the Washington Post’s ongoing project to track every police killing in 2015. And the findings seem to indicate that many of our nation’s police departments are under-trained and unequipped to deal with the mentally ill.
“This a national crisis,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the Post. “We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change.”\
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However, while officer training for dealing with the mentally ill is often woefully lacking and/or underfunded, training alone would not have prevented all of these shootings.
In the majority these cases, the individuals involved were armed, and police were forced make a split-second decision. For example, Gary Page of Harmony, IN, was drunk and brandishing a pistol at the time he was killed by police. He had explicitly told a 911 dispatcher “I want to shoot the cops,” and “I want them to shoot me.” Despite the fact that Page’s gun turned out to be a starter pistol loaded with blanks, its easy to see why officers resorted to deadly force.
Another example was Matthew Hoffman of San Francisco, CA, who was shot after brandishing what turned out to be a BB gun.
“You did nothing wrong,” Hoffman wrote to police in his suicide note. "You ended the life of a man who was too much of a coward to do it himself.”
While better training would not have prevented all of these shootings, there are still cases where standard police tactics make a tense situation even worse. For example, Daniel Covarrubias of Lakewood, WA, was hallucinating due to painkillers he had taken for a broken collar bone. Employees of a local lumberyard called police when Covarrubias began acting suspiciously. Six minutes later, he was shot dead despite being armed with nothing but a cell phone.
“The mentally ill do not process what is happening like a normal criminal,” Sandy Jo MacArthur of the Los Angeles Police Department told the Post. "There’s a lot of white noise in their head.”
Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agrees, adding that in many cases, using standard police tactics is “like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill.”
But as the Post points out, some states have slashed their budgets for psychiatric services by as much as 30 percent over the past few years. As a result, the burden for dealing with the mentally ill has shifted to the police.
“Society is not necessarily handling mental health issues well,” said Craig McKee of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, which was involved in the shooting of Gary Page. “So the number of encounters like this is escalating.”
For more on the Washington Post’s effort to track police shootings, click here.
(Source: The Washington Post)