Why Are Cops Shooting So Many Mentally Ill People?

Kajieme Powell, 25, was known to have suffered from mental health issues. But the cops who responded to the disturbance call on August 21 didn't know this. They ended up shooting him dead in a corner store parking lot moments after they arrived.


Powell was the fourth mentally ill person killed by police officers in a two-week time span in the U.S. The number of men and women being shot by cops recently has sparked conversations—and sharp criticsm—about law enforcement, especially how police are trained to deal with suspects who may have mental health issues.

According to the Portland Press Herald, 375 of the 500 people killed by police in 2012 had a mental disability. Since 2000, 42 percent of people shot by cops—including 58 percent of those who died from their injuries—in the state of Maine had a mental health issue. Because neither the Justice Department nor virtually any local or state entitities collect data on police shootings regarding the mentally ill, it is difficult to analyze the circumstances of these kinds of shootings without relying heavily on news reports.

While police training on how to deal with suspects with mental health issues is essential, one of the first steps to understanding how law enforcement should deal with such cases is to be able to identify someone who has a psychiatric disability or mental illness.

David M. Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois, addressed this topic in a recent CNN piece:

"Psychiatric disability" refers to mental illness that "significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities," a category that clearly applies to people whose "erratic behavior" got them killed by police.

The distinction matters. In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone behaving erratically and holding a knife?

In most cases, officers aren't trained to know. In most of the shootings of people suspected of having mental health issues, the suspects reportedly didn't respond to the officers' commands. Some local law enforcement departments have formed crisis intervention teams that consist of officers who are trained to de-escalate tense situations without using deadly force. There are 2,700 CIT programs established in  the more than 17,000 police agencies in the country, according to USA Today.

New York Magazine provides a breakdown of how CIT works:

Part of the training prepares officers for situations in which a mentally ill person doesn’t respond to commands the way most people do, and this includes training on when a softer, more gentle voice might help de-escalate a situation, as opposed to the louder, more imperative tone often used when interacting with suspects — particularly those seen as dangerous or noncompliant.

In an ideal situation, how would police have dealt with the call about [Kajieme] Powell? The groundwork would have needed to have been laid before they arrived, said Major Sam Cochran, a retired law-enforcement officer and leading CIT specialist. For a dispatcher to know to send a CIT officer, an incident needs to be reported as a mental-health emergency.

Once CIT officers are on-scene, a key point to understand is that crisis intervention isn’t really possible until a certain level of security has been established. “The first step is always going to be for responding officers to make sure the individual doesn’t pose a threat to them or to any bystanders,” said Cochran. Then and only then can a CIT officer start trying to apply her or his skills to a given situation. “Invariably, opening up communications is a process,” he said. “You’d like to slow things down as quickly as possible.” Ideally, officers can get the individual in question in a position where conversation is possible, and can get them “to just stop and pause, and starting to talk at a safe distance,” said Cochran.

One of the St. Louis cops who shot Kajieme Powell was CIT-certified, revealing the clear limitations of CIT training in application. During the 911 call, the officer wasn't told that Powell could have mental health issues. Though most would agree that officers could have used non-lethal ways of subduing Powell, it is clear that police, no matter how well trained, shouldn't be the first responders to stressed individuals with mental health issues.

Increasingly, as mental health facilities close across the nation, officers are becoming the first responders to calls of people in a mental health crisis. In Chicago, mental health clinics are closing at an alarming rate, leaving patients vulnerable to homelessness and susceptible to dangerous interactions with police who are trained to subdue criminals, not assist civilians in mental distress. The top mental health institutions in the U.S. are the Cook County, Los Angeles County and New York City's Riker's Island jails: many people needing help are viewed through the lense of criminality instead of mental health.

But it isn't just the criminal justice system or law enforcement agencies that need to be put to task. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut $5 billion in mental health services and eliminated at least 4,500 public psychiatric hospital beds — nearly 10% of the total supply, according to an extensive report by USA Today.

Where do these people go? In many cases, they end up on the streets, where they often come in unnecessary contact with cops who aren't properly trained to deal with them. In 2012, "40 percent of the homeless population had serious mental illness or conditions related to chronic substance abuse," according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness

While training is essential, pushing politicians at the state and local level to be less stingy with their budgets could likely lead to fewer cops drawing their guns on people who were abandoned by state and local institutions better trained to care for them.

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