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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Some other states and communities are taking notice and keeping track.

In New Hampshire, four of five people shot and killed by police in 2011 had mental health issues (80 percent); a sixth person shot by police also was mentally ill but survived, according to reports from the state's Office of the Attorney General. All six shootings were found to be justified. A review of the New Hampshire attorney general's reports on police shootings from 2007 through 2012 showed that seven of nine people killed by officers during that period had mental health issues (78 percent).

In Syracuse, N.Y., three of five people (60 percent) shot by police in 2011 were mentally ill, according to news reports. One of three people who died in those shootings was mentally ill.

Often, when agencies or organizations add up and analyze police shootings of the mentally ill, they fail to report separate statistics on people who were killed, making it difficult to assess the worst impact of these incidents.

In Santa Clara County, Calif., officials reported that nine of 22 people (41 percent) shot during a recent five-year period were mentally ill, according to a crisis intervention training guide.

In Albuquerque, N.M., 75 percent of police shootings in the last two years had a "mental health context," the state's Public Defender Department noted in its annual report for fiscal 2012.

The Police Executive Research Forum conducted a separate review of use of force by Albuquerque police from 2006 to 2010. Hired by the city, PERF found that 54 percent of people "whose actions led APD officers to use deadly force" had a confirmed history of mental illness. Elsewhere in its report, PERF noted that half of the 37 people shot during that period died from their injuries.

Also in its Albuquerque report, PERF noted that "national data indicate" 65 percent of police shootings involve mentally ill people. However, the origin of that statistic is unclear and PERF's Wexler failed to substantiate the number when asked.

CALLS FOR REFORM EMERGING

In July, the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., issued a report saying it was "problematic" that the Justice Department fails to collect data on police interactions with and shootings of the mentally ill. The national nonprofit promotes laws and policies for timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness.

The advocacy center also suggested that "further study is warranted," given anecdotal experiences of police across the nation who report increases in mental health-related calls.

The recommendation, buried in a 25-page report, "No Room at the Inn: Trends and Consequences of Closing Public Psychiatric Hospitals," is one of the strongest calls on record for improving data collection in this area.

The advocacy center's hope is that better data will show the benefit of spending more on mental health care and reducing the greater cost and safety threat that untreated mental illness poses to both citizens and police.

"The mental health care system has been shifting responsibility to law enforcement for some time now," said Kristina Ragosta, the advocacy center's top lawyer. "Police departments have become default first-responders to people in mental health crisis."

In February, Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie spoke more broadly on the lack of data on police shootings in general at a national summit on minimizing use of force that was hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum.

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