The police just shot him while he was unarmed. He was mentally ill and harmless”. Daily that statement seems to be played out over and over again in the media. Like anything, there is always more to a complex issue than what may first reach the eye. Considering the many studies that point to statistics that seem to highlight a growing rate of police shootings involving those in our community with a mental illness (for example the report done by the Washington Post based on 400 police shootings), can it be objectively claimed that the blame for these shootings of the mentally ill falls squarely on our law enforcement personnel?
Before even attempting to tackle this growing concern of many, I think it best to consider first, the perspective a police officer has. A point published in Masters, et al:2013 page 195, highlights that, “Most police academies do not include specific training to identify individuals who are mentally ill”. Likewise, when the call comes in for an “erratic man” the arriving officer has only three discretionary choices to make. (1) to transport the person seemingly mentally ill to the nearest appropriate facility for evaluation by a Doctor, (2) to arrest the seemingly mentally ill person for an offense such as disorderly conduct, or (3) to handle the situation informally. (p. 125 Masters et.al) Handling the situation informally by the officer is appropriate for the “quite mental” who is not a nuisance to the neighborhood or themselves. (p. 125 Masters et.al) It is here, that the situation seems to unfold to the detriment of the mentally ill person. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in the Atlantic, quotes a caregiver of the mentally ill as saying, “many police in this situation interpret noncompliance as active resistance, particularly when the individual is a young, strong man acting erratically, and their training drives them to advance on their use of force continuum.” How does it turn out when the individual at that point in time does not have the cognitive ability to follow orders, and the situation escalates quickly? Very, very bad.
Freidersdorf offers an enlightened approach to this common situation. He suggests, “The best way to de-escalate a situation is to not call the police at all”. After all, are we not talking about a community issue as it relates to our mental health community members? The majority of the time is this really a police issue? Only if we ascribe to continuing the status quo of stigmatizing those afflected. Study after study show that the mentally ill person is not more likely to be a physical threat than the average public and therefore they are not more likely to cause any real harm. Sure, to the population that is not aware of the true nature of mental illness it can be alarming to see someone conversation with themselves, extremely agitated, and so on. This however does not translate to a public threat.
Breaking down the stigmas plaguing our mental health community is paramount for all of us involved. It is only then real dialogue about what it is we can do, will continue to gain traction. A tall order indeed. May all of us be personally invested in this cause, as understanding and action become more and more the war cry, to fight this issue as individuals with collective voices.