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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The 14-month investigation was triggered, in part, by the 2010 killing of Aaron Campbell, who was unarmed and distraught over his brother's recent death when an officer shot him in the back. A grand jury cleared the officer, who said he thought Campbell was reaching for a gun.

LACK OF DATA STYMIES ANALYSIS

A major roadblock in analyzing police shootings of the mentally ill is the fact that the federal government doesn't gather complete, reliable data on police shootings in general.

The Justice Department collects detailed annual statistics on robberies, assaults and even shootings of police, but shootings by police escape the same scrutiny.

In recent years, the federal agency attempted -- but has since abandoned -- an effort to count arrest-related deaths of people who appeared to be mentally ill.

The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports reflect statistics voluntarily submitted by about 17,000 of the country's 18,000 police departments, representing about 95 percent of the nation's population.

However, the FBI tallies only police shootings that result in "justifiable" homicides; 373 to 411 of these shootings occurred each year from 2006 through 2010. Unjustified police shootings are counted among all other homicides. The FBI doesn't specifically count any incidents involving mentally ill people.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, another arm of the Justice Department, also collects information on police shootings that is voluntarily submitted as part of its annual Arrest-Related Deaths survey.

Started in 2003, the program initially was tied to federal grants, so states had an incentive to report data, bureau officials said.

When the money ran out, impetus to fill out the two-page form waned, so bureau statistician Andrea Burch now goads reluctant states into filling out the form and gleans additional data from media reports, she said.

The bureau's last report, comparing survey results from 2003 to 2009, showed that 375 to 497 people were killed annually by police. The survey report doesn't specify weapons used, but it's usually a gun, Burch said.

In 2009, the bureau added a survey question about the behavior of each person who died during arrest, asking "Did the deceased exhibit any mental health problems?" However, the bureau has since withheld the results of that question and plans to remove the question from the 2013 survey because Burch found inconsistencies in reporting from state to state and problems with the question itself.

"We did not feel we were collecting data that was valid and reliable," Burch said.

The question required subjective judgment of officers involved, Burch said, and the officers often felt hampered by privacy laws and unqualified to register a mental health opinion. The question also didn't take into account other reasons for emotionally disturbed behavior, such as intoxication.

Furthermore, Burch said, the person filling out arrest-related death forms in each state changes frequently and usually isn't the officer involved in the shooting. In Maine, for instance, it's an administrator at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office.

"We tried to come up with a different way to ask the question," she said, "but we kept running into the same issues."

SOME STATES ARE TAKING NOTICE

Without comparative national data, it's difficult to reach conclusions about the fact that at least 24 of 57 Mainers (42 percent) who were shot by police since 2000 -- and 19 of 33 people (58 percent) who died as a result -- had mental health issues, according to reports from the Maine Attorney General's Office.

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