On Thursday, 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. 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.
This startling number highlights a critical problem with police and how they handle incidents with the mentally ill.
"If this were any other medical condition, people would be up in arms," John Snook, the report's co-author and executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center said. "What we need to do is treat the person before the police are ever called. This is a mental illness, but we respond by calling the police and arresting a person."
One would assume that since these numbers are so great, police have taken action and are training their officers to interact with the mentally ill. However, one would be wrong.
As the Free Thought Project has pointed out in the past, the overwhelming majority of time spent by police during training is devoted to shooting their weapons. Very little time is set aside for training in de-escalation tactics, and most departments receive zero training in dealing with the mentally ill.
Of course, the police responded to the study by playing the role of victim. "Police are being forced to be mental health counselors without training," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in the country.
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Instead of addressing the problem by training police, Pasco invokes public pity, which is ignorant - and deadly.
Research shows that in instances involving officers who've been properly trained to deal with the mentally ill, the chances of that officer killing the individual are far less than an untrained cop.
In Miami-Dade County, about 4,600 officers have been trained in crisis intervention (CIT), Steven Leifman, an associate administrative judge in Florida's Miami-Dade County Court, told USA Today. Before the program began, police were involved in the shooting of someone with mental illness about once a month. In the five years since the training began, there have been only four or five such shootings, he said.
In spite of this staggering decrease in police killing the mentally ill, cops across the country remain unconcerned with receiving CIT classes. Instead of training in how to resolve situations peacefully, they are learning how to defend themselves in court after they kill someone.
The power of police training can work wonders in all aspects of police work, as illustrated by the Round Rock police department in Austin, Texas. A simple 8-hour course turned their officers from dog killing machines to officers who stopped killing dogs. But for some reason, police continue to refuse to be trained.
"I am terrified to call the police when it involves my son," said Candie Dalton, of Englewood, Colorado, whose 20-year-old son has schizophrenia.
According to Dalton, her son's interactions with police have left him terrified of law enforcement. Dalton explained to USA Today that once, her son was the victim of a home invasion robbery. When her son was unable to articulate what had happened, police accused him of selling his possessions for drug money. Officers then arrested him because of an unpaid speeding ticket.
Luckily he wasn't killed.
Unfortunately, countless other mentally ill people are not as fortunate and are killed by police on a near daily basis. Being pregnant, or unarmed and naked, or even being a child is not a defense from police officers who are untrained in interacting with the mentally ill.