Police shootings of mentally ill reveal gaps in care

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 7:31 PM
Police shootings of mentally ill reveal gaps in care

DALLAS (AP) — A fatal shooting last year by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of a homeless man with a history of schizophrenia triggered large demonstrations. A month later, Milwaukee police shot a mentally ill man 14 times. In Dallas, a person with mental health problems that included bipolar disorder was killed by officers responding to a disturbance call, while another was seriously wounded in a separate shooting.

As police face increased scrutiny for violent encounters around the U.S., many of which involve people with mental illnesses, law enforcement and advocacy groups are pointing to how the nation treats the mentally ill. They note a revolving door of emergency room visits and incarceration that they say is ineffective and costly.

Police crisis intervention efforts and diversion courts are helpful in stemming the violence, but those on the front lines say states need innovative programs and more must be done to get people early and provide preventative care to curtail explosive moments of crisis.

At least half the people shot and killed by police each year have a mental health disorder, according to the National Sheriffs' Association and the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, which works to secure treatment for the mentally ill.

As it stands now, it's all too often law enforcement that's thrust into the difficult roles of counselor, enforcer and treatment coordinator, according to advocacy groups.

"We have to get out in front, because we're both wasting money and we're not getting them any better," said John Snook, deputy executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia. "And it's unfair to law enforcement to say, 'You have to handle this crisis,' when we won't get out in the front end."

About half the states have laws dictating that mandatory psychiatric care cannot be provided until a person poses a danger, he said, an approach he compared to waiting until a stroke has a ravaged a person's body rather than seeking immediate care.

Among those killed by police in the last year was Jason Harrison, a 38-year-old Dallas man with a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disease. An attorney for Harrison's family, Geoff Henley, this week released video from a body camera worn by one of the officers to bring attention to the June shooting.

While he said the shooting was unjustified, he acknowledged that the officers — and others responding to mental health calls — are thrown into difficult circumstances.

"Is it fair for the cops to be stuck with this? And the answer is, probably not," he said. "This clinical problem becomes a use-of-force problem. And we should not be in this situation."

The video shows Harrison appearing at the doorway while holding a screwdriver. Nine seconds later at least three shots are fired as Harrison falls to the ground, blood seeping through his white T-shirt.

The attorney for the two officers, Chris Livingston, said Harrison made a downward stabbing motion as he came toward them, and that their use of deadly force was unavoidable.

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"They feel horrible that they had to do this on that day," Livingston said. "But at the same time they know that they owe it to their families to go home at night."

Henley said Harrison at no point held the screwdriver threateningly and that the officers escalated the episode.

"As opposed to barking at him, they should have stepped back and started to defuse the situation," Henley said.

In Harris County, home to Houston, two-person teams made up of a sheriff's deputy and a licensed mental health counselor respond to calls involving people believed to be mentally ill. The teams can determine whether someone should face criminal charges, go before a mental health court, be hospitalized or receive other care.

Lt. Robert Henry, commander of the Harris County sheriff's Crisis Intervention Response Team, said the teams have responded to more than 7,600 calls since October 2011. Henry says authorities can't just be rushing from one mental health crisis to another and that the problem is a profound one in need of a bigger solution.

"How contemporary police organizations deal with people who are in a mental crisis is the next most important sociological challenge that we're going to face," he said.