December 12, 2012

Across nation, unsettling acceptance when mentally ill in crisis are killed

Even as they face a growing number of disturbed people, police often lack crisis training. And the leadership and data-gathering needed to stem the bloodshed are largely absent.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

A few times each week, across the United States, police shoot and kill mentally ill people in complicated, often incredible circumstances.

In Houston, Texas, a pen-wielding, wheelchair-bound double amputee is fatally shot in the head when police are called to a group home for the mentally ill. In Saginaw, Mich., six police officers gun down a homeless, schizophrenic man in a vacant parking lot when he refuses to drop a small folding knife.

In Seattle, Wash., a police officer fatally shoots a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic as he crosses the street, carving a piece of wood with a pocket knife. In Portland, Ore., police check on a man threatening suicide and wind up killing him with a single gunshot in the back.

"Some of them, it seems the person is almost executed," said Ron Honberg, director of national policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the country's premier mental health advocacy group.

And yet, there has been no national outcry, no effort to tally the number of unnecessary deaths and no discernible leadership from the U.S. Department of Justice and other organizations, including NAMI, to effectively stem avoidable bloodshed.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found no federal accounting of or reliable national data on police shootings of mentally ill people. State and local statistics are spotty and inconsistent, but a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.

In Maine, 42 percent of people shot by police since 2000 -- and 58 percent of those who died from their injuries -- had mental health problems, according to reports from the Maine Attorney General's Office. In many cases, the officers knew that the subjects were disturbed, and they were dead in a matter of moments. And virtually all of the officers who pulled the trigger lacked training that might have prevented a tragedy.

The problem appears to be growing, cropping up regularly in news reports and at law enforcement conferences across the country. Mental-health and law-enforcement experts attribute some of the increased attention to greater public awareness of and sensitivity to mistreatment of the mentally ill.

But while the Justice Department counts every assault, robbery and drunk-driving arrest -- as well as every police officer shot on duty -- it gathers no numbers on mentally ill people shot by police. Without concrete data to quantify the problem, target solutions and assess results, mental-health and law-enforcement experts agree that the issue cannot be addressed effectively.

The newspaper also found that, without a mandate from Congress to attack the problem nationally, there's widespread reluctance to scrutinize police shootings of the mentally ill and little impetus to question the effectiveness of Justice Department grant programs that address the issue in very limited ways.

At the same time, there's broad agreement that an inadequate public mental health care system, further eroded by $4.53 billion in state-level budget cuts since 2009, has put police on the front lines of a crisis in our society that few officers are adequately trained to handle.

As a result, police officials across the country report spending more time and money responding to calls for service that involve mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people, but little data has been gathered to quantify the strain on public resources.

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