By Liz Szabo
December 10, 2015
At a time of heightened concern over police shootings, a new report estimates that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely than others to be killed by police.
About one in four fatal police encounters involve someone with mental illness, according to the report, released Thursday by the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, which focuses on the needs of people with serious mental illness.
The problem stems from a lack of police training, as well as a lack of treatment for those with serious mental illness, said John Snook, the report's co-author and executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. In many cases, people with serious mental illness are unable to get treatment until their behavior attracts the attention of the police.
"If this were any other medical condition, people would be up in arms," Snook 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."
Nearly 8 million Americans suffer from a serious mental illness that "disorders their thinking," such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, according to the report. On any given day, half of these patients are not taking medications or receiving other care.
There are no "complete and reliable statistics" on police shootings overall, let alone for incidents involving people with mental illness, Snook said. He said he's encouraged that the FBI pledged this week to revamp its system for tracking police shootings, adding that he hopes the database will count how many of the incidents involve mental illness.
People with mental illness are no more violent than others, Snook said. But without treatment, they often end up homeless or arrested for relatively minor offenses, such as loitering, shoplifting or urinating in public.
About one in 10 police encounters involve someone with mental illness, according to the new report, which notes that one in five people in prison suffer from mental illness.
Encounters between the police and those with mental illness can quickly turn dangerous, Snook said, because people in the grip of psychosis can behave unpredictably.
"If you talk to most police officers, the most volatile situations are the ones with mental illness," said Tom Dart, sheriff of Cook County, Ill., who has worked to raise awareness about the large number of people with mental illness in jails and prisons and to improve their treatment.
People who suffer from paranoia often panic when confronted by police, Snook said. People who hear voices may not understand a police officer's commands to stop, drop a weapon or put their hands up. Instead, they may continue walking toward an officer, leading police to fire in self-defense.
"Even for trained mental health professionals, it can be challenging to deal with people who are psychotic or under the influence of their symptoms," said Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. "This places an unfair burden on police."
Many law enforcement groups are concerned about the demands placed upon them.
"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. "It underscores a real tragedy: the total collapse of the mental health system in the United States. People who should be wards of the hospital are wards of the street."
Some police departments have formed crisis intervention teams, whose members have special training in dealing with people with mental illness. Training focuses on ways to calm people in the midst of a breakdown, rather than using force.
In Miami-Dade County, about 4,600 officers have been trained in crisis intervention, said Steven Leifman, an associate administrative judge in Florida's Miami-Dade County Court. 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.
Relatively few police officers have received this sort of training, however. That can leave families of people with serious mental illness with nowhere to turn.
"I am terrified to call the police when it involves my son," said Candie Dalton, of Englewood, Colo., whose 20-year-old son has schizophrenia.
Dalton said her son's interactions with police have left him terrified of law enforcement. Once, he was the victim of a home invasion robbery. When he 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.
On another occasion, Dalton called police because her son threatened her with a kitchen knife. Police responded with overwhelming force.
"There were multiple cops aiming their guns at my son until he got on the ground," Dalton said. "One of the officers later told me that my son was close to having a hole in him so big they could drive a Mack truck through it."