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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In many cases, mentally ill people shot by police have threatened, injured or even killed others. Sometimes, they have threatened suicide or expressed a desire to be shot by the police. Frequently, the use of deadly force seems excessive, if not utterly unnecessary.

In July, six police officers in Saginaw, Mich., shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man who was wielding a knife in the parking lot of a closed Chinese restaurant. When 49-year-old Milton Hall refused to drop the knife, the officers fired a total of 46 rounds, hitting him 11 times, according to news reports. The police officers were cleared.

In September, a police officer in Houston fatally shot a schizophrenic, wheelchair-bound double amputee at a group home for the mentally ill. A caretaker reported that Brian Claunch, 45, had been acting aggressively, upset that he was denied cigarettes and a soda.

The officer said he thought Claunch was holding a weapon. The item in his hand turned out to be a pen. News reports said Claunch liked to doodle. The police chief put the officer on desk duty and asked the FBI to investigate the shooting.

Also in September, a Los Angeles jury awarded $3.2 million in damages to Valerie Allen, a 37-year-old woman with bipolar disorder who survived being shot three times and Tasered by police in 2009. The 5-foot-3-inch, 237-pound woman was running through a neighborhood, wearing only a T-shirt, when she grabbed a 29-inch wooden stake and knocked down one of two officers pursuing her, said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. The officers were cleared by local officials, but the jury found they used excessive force.


Incidents like these have brought Justice Department intervention in a few cities.

In July, the federal agency announced a consent decree forcing reforms in the New Orleans Police Department. The action concluded a two-year investigation that found widespread corruption and discrimination, including regular use of unreasonable force against people in mental health crisis, sometimes when "it appeared that no use of force was justified." Investigators noted in their report that New Orleans received $8.3 million in Justice Department funding in the last three years.

Also in July, the agency announced a similar settlement after an eight-month investigation in Seattle. Investigators found that officers often used excessive force against people who are mentally ill and/or intoxicated, a population that accounts for 70 percent of use-of-force incidents in that city.

Investigators concluded further that many questionable cases in Seattle escalated from minor crimes and improper investigatory stops, such as the 2010 killing of Native American totem carver John T. Williams. The mentally ill alcoholic was shot while crossing a street and carving a piece of wood with a small knife.

Williams, who was hearing-impaired, didn't respond to an officer's command to drop the knife. The city paid Williams' family a $1.5 million settlement -- half of the $3 million that Seattle has spent for police misconduct cases in the last six years, according to the Justice Department's complaint.

In October, the Justice Department announced a settlement in Portland, Ore., where investigators found that police regularly used unnecessary or unreasonable force during interactions with people who have or appear to have mental illness. The agency concluded that nine of 12 people (75 percent) who were shot and killed by cops in Oregon's largest city in the last three years were affected by mental illness.

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