September 27, 2013

Better data on police shootings eludes U.S.

A national report echoes findings of a Press Herald/Sunday Telegram series published in December.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Justice must collect better data on police shootings, especially when they involve mentally ill people, a new national report says.

The call for improved data collection by the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics came from the National Sheriffs' Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.

Neither Justice Department agency collects data on whether people shot by police had mental health problems, according to the report, "Justifiable Homicides by Law Enforcement Officers: What Is the Role of Mental Illness?"

Released Wednesday, the report references a four-part investigative series, "Deadly Force: Police & the mentally ill," which was published by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in December.

The report backs the newspapers' findings that the Justice Department doesn't track police shootings of the mentally ill, even though mental health problems played a role in at least half of police homicides where that information has been recorded.

"Given the anecdotal data that is available," the report states, "it thus seems reasonable that the Portland Press Herald was correct in concluding that 'at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.'"

The report notes that the Press Herald found that 58 percent of Mainers killed by police from 2000 to 2012 were mentally ill, according to data provided by the Maine attorney general.

In New Hampshire, the Press Herald found that four of five people shot and killed by police in 2011 had mental health issues (80 percent), and seven of nine people (78 percent) killed by officers from 2007 through 2012 had mental health issues, according to reports by the New Hampshire attorney general.

The Press Herald found similar percentages in Seattle, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M.

"The collection of reliable data is a legitimate federal responsibility and should be financed by the Department of Justice," the national report recommends.

Better data would allow state-to-state comparison of police shootings and help improve policies and practices, including community mental health care, the report recommends.

The report suggests that public authorities should be allowed to collect detailed psychiatric data, despite federal laws that protect personal health information, because it's in the interest of preventing injury and improving treatment.


Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard


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