December 30, 2012

Newspaper series spurs call to action

State lawmakers and members of Congress say it showed a need for more data and better training.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The four-part series "Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill," published this month in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, sparked strong reactions and calls for change among Maine's congressional delegation, state legislators and other policy makers.

The newspapers' investigation found that 42 percent of 57 Mainers shot by police since 2000 -- and 58 percent of 33 people who died from their injuries -- had mental health problems.

It also exposed a growing demand for public mental health services amid budget cuts that are putting police on the front lines of a community mental health crisis.

But the investigation also found that the vast majority of Maine's 3,500 police officers lack crisis intervention training to defuse potentially deadly conflicts, and that the Maine Legislature hasn't been diligent in its oversight of police shootings that are almost always found to be justified.

"The series was eye-opening," said Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "The Press Herald profiled a really complex issue, showing us how important it is that we not ignore these patterns and tragedies that are happening across our state. It's a community problem that requires a community solution, involving families, providers, police and lawmakers."

It's also a national problem, the newspapers' investigation found, though the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't track police shootings of mentally ill people as it counts every assault, robbery and drunk-driving arrest. The investigation found spotty reports that indicate at least half of the 375 to 500 Americans shot and killed by police each year are mentally ill.

Without a mandate from Congress, the investigation found, the Justice Department takes a hit-or-miss approach to promoting and funding potential public safety solutions, such as crisis intervention training, and it cracks down on police departments only when shootings ignite public outrage.

"This series has highlighted the disturbing fact that a disproportionate number of individuals killed each year by police in the United States have some kind of mental illness," U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement.

Collins said it's equally troubling that police face increased threats to their safety because of an overburdened public mental health system. While some local jurisdictions have taken steps to address the issue, she said, many others are stymied in their efforts by a lack of complete and reliable national data on police shootings of mentally ill people.

"Without this kind of data, it is very difficult for state and local jurisdictions to compare statistics and best practices and begin to ameliorate this problem," Collins said.

Collins said the federal government is "uniquely situated" to collect national data on the problem, which would help improve both mental health services and police response to crisis situations.

"The Department of Justice should work to better keep statistics and to share this information with state and local jurisdictions," Collins said.

LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN

Alfond, the Senate president, said lawmakers have a responsibility to support police officers and provide the training they need to respond more effectively to people in mental crisis.

Given limited state and local budgets, Alfond said, law enforcement leaders must take a hard look at their training needs and submit supporting information for review during budget deliberations.

Alfond said the Legislature must review its own budget priorities, especially when the state has reduced annual spending on public mental health services by $27 million in recent years, despite increasing demand.

(Continued on page 2)

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