A version of this post first appeared here on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.
In 2015, the Washington Post conducted the first ongoing tally of officer-involved shooting deaths of the mentally ill. Nationwide, at least 25% of people who are shot and killed by police officers suffer from acute mental illness at the time of their death. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be fatally shot during an encounter with police than people with their mental illnesses under control.
According to the Post’s 2018 tally, 1,165 civilians were fatally shot by police. Of those, more than 200 were confirmed to be mentally ill. Someone needs to be paying attention.
Unarguably, mental illness isn’t the only factor involved in fatal police encounters. Race is one that is often talked about. But the link of mental illness to police brutality doesn’t have the same publicity.
In 2015, the New York City Police Department responded to more than 400 mental health calls per day, more than 12,000 per month. But why do the police respond to mental health crises, and not EMTs? Historically and correctly, law enforcement has been paid to transport people suffering breakdowns to hospitals. And for many mental wards, police involvement is a requirement for involuntary admittance. In Washington state, for example, “under almost all circumstances police involvement is the primary factor in determining whether referral will result in commitment” (Carr, Durham, and Pierce 1984). This happens often enough that the state of Oklahoma’s mental health department includes a budget line item specifically for reimbursing police to transport patients.
The perception of people suffering mental illness as violent and dangerous is another reason police are called. Officers are the only people often perceived by the public to be able to deescalate mental health crises. According to the American Psychiatric Association, most people with mental illness are not violent, but using the law enforcement as a blunt instrument contributes to the stigma that they are. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely than others to be victims of a crime, not perpetuate them.
A Call to Action for Governments
The December 2015 report from The Treatment Advocacy Center, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” urges lawmakers to make sweeping changes to this broken system. The authors recommended that the lawmakers:
- Restore the mental health system so that people who suffer from mental illnesses will be treated before they end up in encounters with law enforcement;
- Accurately count and report all situations involving deadly force by police officers;
- Identify the number of times those with mental illnesses are fatally shot in an official report, so lawmakers can’t ignore the impact of police fatalities related to mental illness.
Since that study, there has been marginal progress. The 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in December 2016, mandated that data on the role of mental illness in fatal police encounters be collected and reported. Soon after, the Bureau of Justice Statistics started using a new methodology in reporting arrest-related death statistics. Using the new methodology, the number of arrest-related deaths that were verified and reported to the Department of Justice doubled.
But the act is not as robust as it could be. According to the Post’s tally, police killed about two dozen more people in 2017 than in 2016, and even more in 2018. The numbers don’t lie; things have not improved much, despite more accurate reporting.
What Can I Do?
Progress is slow, and this may feel like an insurmountable problem. But there are things you can do to help. Contact your House representative and let them know that you are concerned about fatal police shootings. Read books like Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry, which describes why psychotic patients need involuntary commitments. Champion police body cameras and mandated government reporting of the role of mental illness in shootings. Advocate for mental health funding at all levels of government. If you are a police officer, rely on your crisis training to deescalate crises involving the mentally ill.
Fatal police shootings, especially of when they involve people suffering from mental illness, are not new or rare. Nor are they going away. But there are things you can do to help. We’ve got to stop this trend. With consistent pressure on our lawmakers and law enforcement, we can fix this.
- Durham, Mary & Carr, Harold & Pierce, Glenn. (1984). Police Involvement and Influence in Involuntary Civil Commitment. Hospital & community psychiatry. 35. 580-4. 10.1176/ps.35.6.580.
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