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 kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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NO CONCERTED NATIONAL EFFORT

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has been invited to investigate and crack down on perceived police misconduct involving mentally ill people in a few major cities, including New Orleans, Seattle and, most recently, Portland, Ore.

In November, officials in Oregon's largest city accepted a Justice Department settlement that could cost taxpayers more than $5 million per year. It calls for sweeping policy changes that favor de-escalation tactics over use of force and will add 32 positions aimed at improving police interactions with the mentally ill.

Despite these occasional actions, however, the newspaper found that the Justice Department has failed to lead a concerted, national effort to effectively stem a problem that dates back to the 1980s. That's when police started experiencing more encounters with the mentally ill, as states began closing large, public psychiatric hospitals and counting on community mental health services that have yet to meet expectations.

The Justice Department spends millions of dollars each year on grant programs to help a relative handful of the 18,000 police departments in the United States improve their interactions with the mentally ill. For the most part, the federal agency lets local communities decide whether to adopt special policies or provide special training that might improve officers' response to people in crisis.

The Justice Department typically only steps in when police shootings of the mentally ill or other minorities ignite public outrage. Then, its Civil Rights Division requires police departments to make after-the-fact, local policy and operational changes -- including crisis intervention training promoted by NAMI and other organizations -- that can produce questionable, unverified results.

NAMI's Honberg acknowledges that even his group has failed to push for a unified, national approach to the problem, though the organization targets over-incarceration of the mentally ill as a major concern. At least 17 percent of the 2.2 million people in U.S. jails and prisons are mentally ill, according to recent studies.

Honberg agrees that similar attention should be paid to police shootings of the mentally ill.

"(It's) not a national priority, and it should be, not only for humanitarian reasons, but for economic reasons as well," Honberg said.

JUSTICE DEPT. HAS SECONDARY ROLE

The Civil Rights Division declined repeated requests for interviews to learn more about its investigations. It finally issued the following written statement:

"For a variety of reasons, police departments are finding that they have to deal (increasingly) with persons in mental health crisis. Police departments have to make sure that they and their officers are properly trained to appropriately handle these situations.

"Our investigations in Portland, (Ore.), Seattle and New Orleans indicated that officers sometimes use force that is inappropriate for a person in mental health crisis and increases the risk of harm to the officer, the individual in crisis, and the community when situations can be de-escalated in a manner that is safe for everyone involved.

"As with all of our investigative findings and agreements, we hope that other departments are reviewing these to ensure that they are doing what is constitutionally required."

Civil rights experts at the American Civil Liberties Union's national office also declined to be interviewed for this report. Like NAMI, the ACLU actively works on the related issue of over-incarceration of the mentally ill, and its website offers several staff members with expertise in various areas of law enforcement.

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