In most cases, police were called not because of a crime but by a concerned bystander or loved one
Reporting released by the Washington Post on June 30 depicts an apparently stark reality when it comes to confrontations between police and people with mental illness in the U.S. The article draws from the newspaper’s tracking of every fatal police shooting in the country in the first six moths of 2015 — 462 in all — to present an in-depth look at those confrontations involving disturbed or distressed individuals.
During that time, police killed someone in mental or emotional crisis every 36 hours, including three men within 10 hours on April 25, the Post reports.
In most of those cases, the paper says, officers were not called to the scene because of reports of a crime but were rather responding to concerned bystanders or loved ones. Out of the 124 shootings examined in the report, 50 involved explicitly suicidal individuals. In 45 cases, police were explicitly asked for medical assistance or called after the individual had attempted to get medical assistance elsewhere. Nearly a dozen of those killed were veterans, and several suffered from PTSD.
Many of the responsible police agencies do not train their officers adequately to deal with distressed people, the article concludes. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, officers in training spend up to 60 hours learning to handle a gun and only eight hours each learning to neutralize taut situations and interact with mentally ill individuals. In fact, many of the tactics learned in training, such as shouting commands, can worsen the situation for already fragile people.
“This a national crisis,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the Post. “We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change.”