One recurrent theme we hear, time after time here at The Free Thought Project, is that when police are involved in a mental health crisis, bad things happen. Now, there's a survey to validate our observations.
Researchers sought to answer the question of whether or not police help or hinder the situation when they respond to a call of a mentally disturbed individual. The survey was conducted by the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues. The method employed was a survey. The sample for the survey was taken from those seeking mental health care. There were 244 individuals who were polled and self-reported having mental-health issues seeking treatment in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area. They were located in health clinics, residential programs, and some were homeless. Of those polled, a reported 51 percent had at least one encounter with police and 24 percent had three or more encounters with officers of the law.
The results of the survey found that 45 percent of those who reported having been in contact with police said the encounter quickly deteriorated after police arrived. Only 30 percent said police helped at all. And just 19 percent said they helped a lot. Only 6 percent of those polled said police had no effect at all. The statistics can be interpreted in many different ways. Principally, it could indicate Phoenix' finest need a lot of help and training in dealing with mentally ill citizens.
Phoenix has a dedicated squad of officers to deal with mentally ill individuals. They're called the Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. There are two such teams today. The first was created in 2014, following the shooting death of Michelle Cusseaux. She was killed after greeting police with a claw hammer raised above her head. The public decried the shooting and said it was another murder of an unarmed African American at the hands of police.
The results of the study could serve to indicate just how much more training needs to take place within the Phoenix police department, but since it's a first, there are no benchmarks to compare it to. In other words, it could have been worse before the CIT teams were created and the statistics simply don't reflect their impact on society. But when nearly 50 percent of respondents say their interactions with police deteriorated once they arrived, something more must be done to protect the mentally ill in our society.
There may be no better example of just how bad a police encounter can become with someone who suffers from mental illness, than a story we reported to you in December.
Justin Tyler Scott was a mentally ill homeless man who literally lived on a sidewalk in Austin, Texas. Police Sgt. Gregory White approached him while pursuing a suspect. White began to ask Scott a series of questions. When the homeless man refused to answer all of his questions, he severely beat the man so badly he had to be hospitalized.
Upon being discharged from the hospital, he was then transferred to jail. Scott spent nearly six months in jail before prosecutors realized they did not have a case against him and dropped all charges. Scott sued and will likely win in court, a settlement the taxpayers will have to saddle.
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In Phoenix, the situation for the mentally ill seems just as precarious. We spoke with a mentally-ill woman we will refer to only by her first name, Rene. She lives in South East Phoenix and was going to see a friend one day when she had a tire blow out. She was so distraught with the breakdown, she decided she'd walk the rest of the way to her friend's house.
Rene grabbed her beer from her vehicle and started walking the short distance. Being stressed out by the blowout, Rene decided she'd crack open the beer she'd just bought and drink some liquid comfort along the way. That's when she says she was bum rushed by a gang of men she did not recognize.
It turns out the men were undercover police officers who'd noticed her drinking beer in public and decided to arrest the mentally ill woman. What they didn't know about her was that she was a rape survivor and being grabbed by a group of men was a trigger for her. She wailed against the men, even kicking one in the leg, a reaction which got her charged with assaulting an officer. The charge stuck, and she spent 188 days in jail for a crime she said she should never have been charged with.
Had police been better trained in identifying mental illness, it's quite possible they could have noticed something was a bit off with Rene. She survived her stint in jail and left with a renewed commitment to seeing those who've been jailed unjustly, go free.
According to AZ Central, Phoenix Police understand there's more work that needs to be done for citizens to remain safe, out of jail and getting the care they need. Phoenix police Sgt. Jonathan Howard explained to AZ Central there are thousands of mental-health pickup calls in Phoenix each year. He said the majority are problem free. He said other calls come in which involve some sort of crisis and isn't unclear whether or not those individuals with whom the police are dealing, are mentally ill or not.
“So while we do have two squads of certified crisis intervention-trained officers ... we still have thousands of officers responding to calls for service every day, working with people in crisis for a variety of reasons,” he said, adding there are an additional 500 Phoenix officers trained in the same crisis-intervention techniques as the two dedicated squads.
As we have previously reported, the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, an organization dedicated to eliminating the barriers faced by those with severe mental illnesses, released a jaw-dropping report, last year. In their report titled, Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters, researchers discovered that people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an interaction with police than anyone else.
According to the study, by all accounts – official and unofficial – a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness.
WHERE OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT DATA REGARDING POLICE SHOOTINGS AND MENTAL ILLNESS HAVE BEEN ANALYZED – IN ONE U.S. CITY AND SEVERAL OTHER WESTERN COUNTRIES – THE FINDINGS INDICATE THAT MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS ARE A FACTOR IN AS MANY AS 1 IN 2 FATAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ENCOUNTERS.