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.
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—Photo Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr