About one in every four fatal police encounters involves someone with a mental illness, a new study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, which focuses on the needs of people with serious mental disorders, says. The report, released in December 2016, notes that as compared to others, people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police.
An estimated 8 million people in America suffer from a serious mental illness. As per John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, such people are generally non-violent and often end up interacting with the police over minor offenses such as loitering or shoplifting. Encounters with people with mental illnesses are volatile as there is no set pattern as to how they would react.
Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, clarifies the position of the police in such cases when he says that dealing with psychotic people places an unfair burden on the police as dealing with such individuals is challenging even for trained mental health professionals.
Post the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the behavior of police in Ferguson, Missouri and released its report in March 2015. As per its authors, police officers, even when they lack legal authority, expect and demand compliance from people suffering from mental illness and when this does not happen, the situation may take a turn for the worse.
In 2015, a Washington Post analysis found that police officers fatally shot at least 243 people suffering from mental health illnesses, out of which 168 had a history of mental illness and 75 were explicitly suicidal. The analysis also found that nine out of 10 of the mentally ill people were armed with things like guns, knives, or other sharp objects. The sad part of the survey was that most of these people died at the hand of those police officers who had not been trained to deal with the mentally ill.
Identifying and correcting the problem
As per a 2016 report by the Washington Post, one in every five people in the prison suffers from some form of mental illness. It also mentions that about one in every 10 police encounters involves someone with mental illness.
As per Steven Leifman, an associate administrative judge in Florida’s Miami-Dade County Court, about 4,600 officers in the county have been trained in crisis intervention. Prior to the program inception, there was a case about once a month in which the police were involved with someone with mental illness; however, since the five years of inception of the program, there have been only four or five such shootings.
Another key measure in this direction was the passing of the 21st Century Cures Act on December 13, 2016. In addition to working towards combating the opioid epidemic, performing research, and funding public health programs, the Act also mandates collecting data on the number of homicide cases involving people suffering from mental illness and cases with serious body injuries or deaths that involved law enforcement officers.
While a number of steps are being taken to identify and treat people with mental illnesses, it remains to be seen how far will they be able to achieve the required success.
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