Many Police Shootings Involve The Mentally Ill

Sinuon Pream is pictured in this undated photo. The 37-year-old  mentally ill woman was shot and killed by Long Beach police in January 2017.

Last weekend when I pulled into my driveway I saw an alarming, but not totally unusual sight. My next door neighbor who suffers from a mental illness, was pacing back and forth between my driveway and his, yelling and swearing at the top of his lungs.

I could barely make out what he was yelling about, but I heard a few words that made me think he was venting about some type of unresolved childhood traumas and was clearly off his medications and in a manic state.

He was perspiring profusely and didn’t even acknowledge me when I pulled into the driveway and got out of my car. I didn’t attempt to engage or redirect him because he appeared agitated so I quickly went inside of my house.

For the next hour or so I could hear him yelling. Periodically I looked out of the window and watched him walk back and forth as if he were having an argument with someone who wasn’t there. In the past some of our other neighbors have called the police on him for disturbing the peace and I was hoping that none of them would call the police this time, because as scary and intimidating as this behavior could appear, he was harmless. However, if the police got involved, depending on their approach, I was unsure of how he would react and what the outcome of that interaction would be.

In the best case scenario, the police would come, identify him as a mentally ill individual  and transport him to the mental health hospital which is less than five miles from where we live. Another outcome would be that they would arrest him as they had done numerous times before when he was off of his medication and causing a scene. The worse, and yet what I feared to be a highly likely outcome would be that they would see his manic and agitated behavior as a sign of aggression and use force, perhaps even deadly force on him.

Thankfully, after close to 2 hours of yelling and pacing, he went back in the house and all was quiet again. No one had called the police. No one had gotten hurt.

I woke up the next morning to hear on the news that in the next county over, a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer after his family called seeking help for him.

Deadly Force and The Mentally Ill

I wrote an article a few years ago about mentally ill individuals and deadly police encounters. Unfortunately, individuals with a mental illness make up a disproportionate number of people stopped, arrested and killed by law enforcement officers.  Research suggests that approximately 25% of the individuals that law enforcement officers encounter have a severe mental illness.

Individuals with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during encounters with law enforcement compared to the general population.  Some statistics estimate that nearly half of all law enforcement deathly force incidents involve an individual with a severe mental illness.

That is why I was so afraid to call the police to ask for help with my neighbor that night. It’s sad that so many people who need help end up arrested or getting killed by those asked to help them.

Law enforcement officers need to undergo intensive and ongoing training in dealing with mentally ill and unstable individuals and to not always resort to deadly force during these often tense, unpredictable and scary encounters. They could first attempt nonlethal force, verbal de-escalation or calling for more assistance before reaching for their fire arm.

Communities can also increase assess to treatment programs so that individuals are less likely to go untreated and hopefully decrease their chances of having encounters with law enforcement.

When you look into it, the number of mentally ill people involved in deathly police shootings is staggering. No family who calls the police asking for a well-being check on their mentally ill loved one should worry that he or she will be shot and killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve.

TRAINING OFFICERS TO DEAL WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

istock_000005236471largeThe other day my girlfriend was looking at a video on Facebook. I wasn’t looking at the video, but what I heard was a lot of shouting and then finally multiple gunshots. It was obviously a violent video and I didn’t want to see it.

The next day I saw that she had shared the video on her page which to me meant that whatever the video was about, she felt either passionate about it or angered by it so I decided to watch it. What I saw was an unarmed man, surrounded by five overly aggressive, untrained police officers who end up shooting him.

You can find the video at the end of this post. Warning, some my find it graphic and hard to watch.

During my research for this post, Los Angeles police leaders insist that all of the officers involved in this altercation had some training on dealing with the mentally ill, with some having as little as 11 hours of training. They went as far as they say that the skills learned in the training were used during this encounter, which in some part may be true, but when I see officers taking violent punches at a person and being overly aggressive with little control or coordination, it’s hard for me to see that any crisis intervention techniques were appropriately used.

For over 4 years I worked in a psychiatric hospital where every day we had to deal with at least one hostile patient, some who had just been released from jail and brought directly to our facility. These patients in particular were aggressive and violent and often needed to be restrained for their safety and the safety of others. We often had to “take down” these patients with as little as three staff members actually going hands on. Patients very rarely got hurt. Matter of fact I can’t even think of one incident I was involved in where a patient got hurt. Staff rarely got hurt as well and when they did it was generally superficial scratches. No one ever died. Ever. No patient, no staff member.

Unlike in this video we weren’t armed with more than latex gloves and training in non-violent crisis intervention training. We practiced what is sometimes called “therapeutic hands on” actions, which means that when we did have to put our hands on a patient we did so in a way to quickly gain control of them without trying to hurt them, no matter how violent they are responding to us, unlike in the video where you will see at least one officer swinging away at the inmate as if he were in a mixed martial arts fight.

The officer who says the suspect was reaching for his gun and the officer who appears to have been the most involved with the suspect was the newest officer on the scene with the least amount of training in dealing with mentally ill people.

I’m not saying that all police officers are this way, but many officers when dealing with individuals are overly aggressive and don’t have the patience it takes to appropriately deal with mentally ill people. This is why we see so many unarmed individuals getting killed by police; over aggression and lack of patients. I know their job is dangerous and tough and often times they can’t wait to see what happens before putting themselves in danger.

However, when you have a job where it’s pretty much excepted if you kill someone it’s okay, it makes having to be patient and cautious a lot less likely. Working in the psychiatric hospital, if we killed a patient while trying to restrain him we would most likely get fired, loss our licenses and get sued by the family. Too many officers operate with impunity.

Where I live we are lucky to have Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers who have went through specialized training to deal with mentally ill individuals. Whenever I had to call law enforcement for someone I believed was mental ill I always requested a CIT officers for that individuals safety. CIT officers are more likely to approach mentally ill individuals calmly and take them to the mental hospital instead of jail. They generally don’t over-react or act aggressively. Unfortunately, not all police and sheriff’s departments have CIT officers or good training programs.

What I am advocating here is for more training like the training done by the Clark County Sheriffs Department.

With the appropriate training on how to calm a person down, even when restraining them, the number of unarmed killings by law enforcement officers would go down drastically, mentally ill or not.