Alanna Berger: American police are not equipped for mental illness

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 2:44pm

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The July 18, 2016 shooting of Charles Kinsey is just one of many police shootings of unarmed Black men that has garnered media attention. Kinsey, a caretaker for individuals with disabilities, was allegedly accidentally hit by the officer’s bullets. The intended target was Arnaldo Rios Soto, a man with severe autism who had wandered away from the group home where Kinsey was employed. As Soto sat motionless on the ground while clutching a toy firetruck, which the officer allegedly mistook for a firearm, Kinsey tried to explain the situation and pleaded with the officers not to shoot. In this instance, Kinsey survived his injuries, and the North Miami officer who shot him was ultimately acquitted of attempted manslaughter charges. Beyond the connection to racial biases in the police force, this example highlights another problem plaguing law enforcement: the treatment of individuals with mental illnesses. 

There is no shortage of stories involving those with mental illnesses or other disabilities experiencing violence at the hands of police officers, and they often have more tragic outcomes than Kinsey’s experience. Take, for example, the 2017 fatal police shooting of a deaf man in Oklahoma, the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old man with schizophrenia and the brutal beating and tasing of a diabetic man experiencing altered mental status due to hypoglycemia. In fact, mental illness was involved in 25 percent of police shootings in 2017. Even more sobering, mentally ill individuals are 16 times more likely to die from a police encounter than the general population. Based on these facts and the multitude of tragic deaths at the hands of police violence, it is clear that American police officers require further training on how to handle cases involving those with mental illnesses. 

The main problem contributing to the elevated levels of police violence toward individuals experiencing mental health crises is that law enforcement is often the first line of defense called to manage them. The mentally ill or those experiencing medical emergencies impacting their mental state are often perceived as threatening to those around them. The purpose of law enforcement is not to be a frontline in providing medical care, such as for mental health. However, when family members or loved ones of someone experiencing an acute mental health crisis call 911 in search of support, police officers often show up, rather than emergency medical technicians. In some states, such as Oklahoma, police officers are legally required to transport the mentally ill to the hospital for involuntary commitment. Oklahoma police officers even receive payment from the state mental health budget specifically for performing these transports. Even in states where the police are not legally required to transport involuntary commits to the hospital, it is often easier to have law enforcement do so. 

The involvement of police in mental health emergencies concerning involuntary commitment is often a matter law or practicality. However, it often perpetuates the notion that the mentally ill are a dangerous population. In the vast majority of scenarios, people with mental illnesses are not a danger to others. They are simply in need of serious medical attention that can often be difficult to obtain. Yet, training for police officers seldom focuses on the correct management of mental health emergencies. Instead, the majority of training is centered on how to manage individuals who actually are dangerous, creating a disconnect for police officers between what they have learned and what they actually experience. 

Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former police officer, says that “do whatever you need to do to get home at the end of your shift” is the most important rule taught to training officers. Such a line of thinking clearly emphasizes the worst case scenario in all situations. Thus, police officers are trained to seem intimidating to those they are interacting with. These behaviors can include speaking with a loud, booming voice, moving closer to whom they are speaking with, keeping their hand on their weapon and maintaining a wide stance. To an individual of sound mind, such behaviors are unnerving and signal the necessity of compliance. However, to an individual experiencing an acute mental health emergency, interacting with police officers behaving in this manner is downright terrifying. As opposed to obeying officers’ commands, a mentally ill individual may begin to behave unpredictably. For example, they may lunge at the officer or otherwise try to escape the situation. When this happens, the officer may then resort to violence, such as tasing or shooting. Therefore, police training does not adequately prepare the officers to handle the complexities of mental health emergencies. 

Treatment of mental illness is often overwhelmingly complicated. There is no one universal approach on how to best handle an individual in mental crisis. That being said, it is clear that the current method of employing law enforcement to handle mental health emergencies is failing. In order to provide better treatment for the mental ill in medical crisis, some police departments have begun to implement Crisis Intervention Team programs. These programs are community-based and create connections between law enforcement, mental health care providers, hospital-based emergency services and mentally ill individuals. CIT programs look to educate officers on how to best handle mental illness without the use of lethal force or the arrest of the individual. The trainings aim to increase empathy and techniques on how to best de-escalate a situation. Police officers receiving training also listen to recordings to simulate auditory hallucinations sometimes experienced by schizophrenic patients and take multiple daily “pills” made of candy to demonstrate the difficulties in maintaining a treatment regimen. 

Mental illness is extremely common in the United States. With nearly half of all adults diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, it is increasingly likely that police officers will come into contact with a mentally ill individual throughout their daily work. Currently, police encounters with the mentally ill all too often employ the use of lethal force. In order to best provide for the nation’s mentally ill population, police departments and communities must come together to create an environment to provide assistance to those in crisis. 

Alanna Berger can be reached at balanna@umich.edu.