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

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An ACLU spokeswoman said via email that the organization's response to specific incidents of police use of force, including shootings of the mentally ill, is left to local chapters.

Ultimately, many of the shootings are found to be "justifiable" and represent a tiny fraction of the 40 million Americans who interact with police annually, but that's little consolation to family members and others who say many of the deaths are unnecessary.

"The shootings may be (considered) lawful, but they're awful," said Melissa Reuland, an independent consultant with the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments who has studied the issue since the 1990s.


Despite repeated tragedies, the Justice Department has failed to conduct detailed analyses of police shootings, including those involving the mentally ill. Many people close to the issue, including Honberg and other NAMI leaders, say they avoid second-guessing the actions of officers in crisis situations.

"I try to avoid Monday-morning quarterbacking because the police are being put in an impossible situation," Honberg said. Concerns about local control, privacy rights and liability issues also stand in the way of quantifying and attacking the problem, he said.

"There are a lot of disincentives to report" the full impact of police shootings, Honberg said, because law enforcement officials are always trying to avoid the potential for costly lawsuits.

To effectively address the problem, experts say communities need reliable national statistics to analyze where, when and how police shootings happen. They need independent research to identify contributing factors and cull best practices that could help police avoid shootings. Some also believe there should be a national mandatory use-of-force policy to guide law enforcement's response to people with mental illness.

One law enforcement official who's calling for national action is Art Acevedo, police chief in Austin, Texas. He's a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Bad outcomes around the country reflect badly on all of us," Acevedo said. "The more information and consistency we have around the country, the better off we are as a nation."

A national approach would increase the safety of both police officers and the communities they serve, Acevedo and others said.

It also could save taxpayers money, they said, if government leaders were able to demonstrate that it's more cost-effective to fully fund mental health services and police training up front, rather than risk more expensive responses and sometimes tragic results when crisis situations go wrong.

"It's the only way anything will change," said Michael Biasotti, police chief in Windsor, N.Y., whose recent master's degree thesis study of the apparent rise in mental health-related police calls gained national attention among law-enforcement and mental-health experts.

"It's not just about the (mentally ill) people police are shooting," Biasotti said. "It's about the care they aren't getting and they should be getting so they don't pose a danger to themselves or anyone else."


Some mental health care advocates question whether organizations that benefit from federal funding and laws that encourage "collaboration" on the issue have any real motivation to push for change. These organizations include state and local government agencies, such as police departments, and powerful nonprofits, such as NAMI, the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments and the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.

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