Why police need better training on how to help people with mental illnesses
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren ordered the immediate suspension of seven police officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than other civilians to be killed during an encounter with police.
Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old with autism, was nearly shot to death in September after police in Salt Lake City responded to a call from the boy’s mother pleading for help to manage an emotional meltdown.
“Why didn't they tase him (instead)? Why didn't they shoot him with a rubber bullet?” the distraught mother demanded at the police station.
It seems nobody can give her an answer.
Linden's case highlights an often underreported aspect of police violence: the frequency with which people with mental illness are shot and killed. Reports estimate that from 25% to 50% of fatal encounters with police involve individuals struggling with various mental health issues.
Mental health a factor in deaths
The issue has become isolated from the national focus on police violence against African-Americans, but that is a mistake. The two are inextricably linked.
For George Floyd and Daniel Prude, their mental health was a factor in their deaths at the hands of police. For Floyd, his refusal to sit in the back of a police car was precipitated by claustrophobia and anxiety. Police confronted and killed Prude, who had a history of hallucinations and paranoia, after his behavior became erratic.
African-Americans are six times more likely than whites to be killed by police, and it's obviously a critical issue. Yet, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than other civilians to be killed during an encounter with police.
Police lack training
Why are people in the greatest need of help also the most likely to be met with violence?
The tragic answer is that police officers are ill-equipped to respond to those suffering from mental health crises. Officers in training spend about 58 hours learning to use their firearms, but receive on average only eight hours of instruction on mental health crisis intervention.
The lack of preparedness is especially startling given that those accused or convicted of crimes have disproportionality high rates of mental illness.
Without proper training, officers are subject to the same bewilderment many of us face when confronted with atypical human behavior. That said, the critical difference between a bewildered police officer and a bewildered citizen is the officer’s sidearm and his ization to use deadly force if necessary.
By definition, those with neurological differences don’t behave in accordance with what is considered “normal.” This puts officers on edge and can lead to assumptions that an individual exhibiting abnormal behavior is on drugs and dangerous.
“It is difficult to tell the difference between someone who is suffering acute mental illness or someone who is under the influence of substances," Dr. Mary Marrocco, medical director of Behavioral Health and Emergency and Consult Services at Rochester Regional Health, said.
A concerted effort to improve training of first responders to handle mental health crises would help African-Americans, who suffer disproportionately from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, as well as individuals struggling with mental issues in all demographic groups.
The lives of the neurologically diverse matter. We have a moral obligation to help keep them safe.
Laura Williamson is a contributor for Young Voices.