What You Didn’t Know About Half of Police Shooting Victims

A new and alarming report shows that at least half of all police shooting victims are mentally ill.

Lapses in the American health care system, mostly due to lack of funding,  mean that people who need help usually end up homeless instead, where their behavior tends to grow more extreme. Furthermore, mentally ill people who are being held for treatment are kept on suicide watch and are surrounded by medical personnel who are specifically trained to handle any situation that may arise. However, once these patients are released and returned to the streets, there’s nothing stopping them from committing suicide—or even suicide by cop (i.e. intentionally putting oneself into situations that compel a police officer to resort to deadly force).


In addition to that disturbing reality, police officers are often not sufficiently trained to deal with the mentally ill in such scenarios. Instead, they’re reduced to shooting people who don’t comply with their instructions in dangerous situations. With all of this in mind, the recent report published in the Portland Press Herald should come as no surprise.

… a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems. In many cases, the officers knew that the subjects were disturbed, and they were dead in a matter of moments. And virtually all of the officers who pulled the trigger lacked training that might have prevented a tragedy.

Although the number of mentally ill victims shot by officers across the US is miniscule compared to the 40 million Americans who come into contact with the police annually, these deaths are still heartbreaking for the families and loved ones of those whose lives are lost. This is clearly an issue that must be addressed by the governing agencies that regulate and fund these police departments. However, as the report goes on to show, “the Justice Department has failed to lead a concerted, national effort to effectively stem a problem that dates back to the 1980s.”

For the most part, the federal agency lets local communities decide whether to adopt special policies or provide special training that might improve officers’ response to people in crisis … The Justice Department typically only steps in when police shootings of the mentally ill or other minorities ignite public outrage.

With the revelations this recent report has brought to light, and the reality that more and more police departments are being required to deal with mentally ill citizens without any added training or assistance from the federal government, I would assert that it is far past the time for public outrage to be ignited.


Read more on the Good Feed Blog.

—Photo Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr 

About Kathryn DeHoyos

Kathryn DeHoyos currently resides on the outskirts of Austin, TX. She has 2 beautiful children, and is very happily un-married to her life partner DJ.


  1. It’s not a question of being committed.
    Ideally everyone would have a home and adequate medical care, but even if they did it wouldn’t be enough to provide safety *both* to the mentallly ill and the rest of the populace.
    Which is where the police come in.
    More “prison” is not the answer although commitment can be highly healing.
    Integration, not regression, is where our hope lies I think.
    These are people too. Let’s treat them as such.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    The guy who pushed a commuter into the path of a subway is mentally ill. But he cannot be involuntarily committed until he poses a threat, which he does now, but beforehand he did not. Not so that anybody could see. So he/ and they/ are out and wandering around.
    That’s the law. It’s not funding. In addition, those on meds cannot be forced to take the meds.
    The question of whether a guy assaultng a cop is nuts or just likes to do that stuff, is interesting in theory but likely not immediately relevant. If things worked out differently, the cop would be just as dead either way.
    It’s for the gray areas there are stun guns, batons and chokeholds.

    • Police in some neighbourhoods used to know most of the individuals in the communities they patroled. This community involvement came partially from police walking rather than driving, which means that for a particular neighbourhood to be patrolled effectively you would need more police walking. That is a funding issue. That is a funding issue which becomes more complicated in major metro hubs, but those sprawling city areas are still made of neighbourhoods.

      If police recieved adequate funding, they could focus on community involvement rather than quotas and revenue from tickets.

      Meantal illness does not usually start overnight, there are indicators that something is off, sometimes for years in advance of anything happening. Mental illness that will result in violence usually peaks around age 28 (look at the average age of serial killers). This type of information as well as other facts about mentally unstable people would be useful for police to have as part of special training which would need funding.

      If police were funded to patrol on foot and had access to information about the best course of action for any mentally ill people in their neighbourhood, they would be better equipped to deal with these situations. These changes can be made with increased funding and without tampering with the law that you are not guilty of a crime before you commit one.

      As police are now, I don’t like them and don’t think more of them are good for society. But if police were integrated in the communities they are supposed to serve, they would have a better understanding of individuals, and empathy for those experiencing difficulties. They could be a positive influence with the funding and training to focus on promoting lawful activity rather than the reactionary body they are, scrambling to administer punishment after a crime.

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