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Shoot 'Em in the Back Now

Are police officers cowards?


That question has been rattling around my brain since I read this long investigation by the Portland (Maine) Press Herald Their investigation found no federal accounting or reliable national data on the number of mentally ill or suspected mentally ill killed by police but estimated based on spotty state reporting that about half of the 375-500 people shot and killed by police in the United States each year had a history of mental health problems.


Granted, that is a pretty small number considering the average of 40,000 encounters between police and American citizens every year. The Press Herald found it easier to compile statistics for Maine given its relatively low rate of violent crime. The investigation found that  “[i]n Maine, 42 percent of people shot by police since 2000 — and 58 percent of those who died from their injuries — had mental health problems, according to reports from the Maine Attorney General’s Office. In many cases, the officers knew that the subjects were disturbed, and they were dead in a matter of moments. “


Here are some other statistics from this report:


In New Hampshire, four of five people shot and killed by police in 2011 had mental health issues (80 percent); a sixth person shot by police also was mentally ill but survived, according to reports from the state’s Office of the Attorney General. All six shootings were found to be justified. A review of the New Hampshire attorney general’s reports on police shootings from 2007 through 2012 showed that seven of nine people killed by officers during that period had mental health issues (78 percent).


In Syracuse, N.Y., three of five people (60 percent) shot by police in 2011 were mentally ill, according to news reports. One of three people who died in those shootings was mentally ill.



In Santa Clara County, Calif., officials reported that nine of 22 people (41 percent) shot during a recent five-year period were mentally ill, according to a crisis intervention training guide.


In Albuquerque, N.M., 75 percent of police shootings in the last two years had a “mental health context,” the state’s Public Defender Department noted in its annual report for fiscal 2012.


The Police Executive Research Forum conducted a separate review of use of force by Albuquerque police from 2006 to 2010. Hired by the city, PERF found that 54 percent of people “whose actions led APD officers to use deadly force” had a confirmed history of mental illness. Elsewhere in its report, PERF noted that half of the 37 people shot during that period died from their injuries.


And here are some of the individual cases:


In Houston, Texas, a pen-wielding, wheelchair-bound double amputee is fatally shot in the head when police are called to a group home for the mentally ill.


In Saginaw, Mich., six police officers gun down a homeless, schizophrenic man in a vacant parking lot when he refuses to drop a small folding knife.


In Seattle, Wash., a police officer fatally shoots a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic as he crosses the street, carving a piece of wood with a pocket knife.


In Portland, Ore., police check on a man threatening suicide and wind up killing him with a single gunshot in the back.


In most of these cases and others like it, the officers involved were cleared and shooting was ruled “justifiable homicide.”


So back to my original question: are police officers cowards?


Of course, nothing is black and white (no pun intended). Police have seen a dramatic increase in interactions with the mentally ill since the early 1980s, or the time that the state psychiatric institutions began closing at a rapid rate. So police, like the prisons, are now dealing with something they were never trained to deal with. They are dealing with the failure of de-institutionalization, or more specifically, the failure to replace the institutions with anything remotely resembling chronic medical mental health care. Communities aren’t hospitals. Why anyone ever thought they would be able to do what the psychiatric institutions did is beyond me. Sure, we could still create effective community mental health, but it wouldn’t look anything like the hodge-podge “recovery” crap you see out there today, assuming you can even find that. It would require a “whole life” support, with people who cared about you checking up on you every day.


Right now, when a mentally ill person leaving prison, they get seven days of meds and a number to call when they get out.


What do you think is going to happen?


If you are discharged from an acute care psychiatric unit, you are given no pills at all, just a prescription. Unless you have people looking out for you, what do you think will happen?


Of course, that assumes you actually have the wherewithal to get yourself to an acute psychiatric ward in the first place and you meet the strict criteria for admission, which ironically is “immediate threat of harm to yourself or others.” Meaning that at the exact moment you present to the ER, you have to have thoughts of killing yourself or others. Thoughts in the past or thoughts in the future don’t matter. Only this moment, or insurance or Medicaid won’t pay and the docs won’t treat.


Hmm. “Immediate threat of harm to yourself or others….” Well, that sounds like a situation for the police to handle, doesn’t it?


Do you see the problem?


By the time you are “an immediate threat to yourself or others,” chances are you are more likely to get tasered or shot by police than get a comfy bed in a psych ward.


So why do such a high proportion of mentally ill either get seriously hurt or die in encounters with police?


“Stigma!” you shout.


No. I think your average African American or Latino male can shout “stigma,” but not us advocates of the mentally ill. The cops don’t “profile” mentally ill.


After all, it’s kind of hard to tell a crazy person apart from the rest of us, until they actually get crazy.


The mentally ill get shot and killed at a disproportionate rate for one reason and one reason alone….


They don’t comply.


Think about it. If an officer tells you to sit the fuck down on the curb, you sit the fuck down on the curb. Why? Because they got a weapon strapped to their side and you don’t want to give them a reason to use it. You are capable of thinking logically. I just do what the officer tells me and he will probably let me go.


You do what they tell you. You do what they tell you because you know who they are and you know what can happen.


What do the untreated mentally ill hear when the cops yell “Police! Don’t move!”


I don’t know. Do the voices in their head suddenly stop screaming at them? Can they even see the police? That scene in the book where the Sheriff’s Deputy came to Jani’s school? I couldn’t take my eyes off his gun. She barely looked at him and I know she didn’t see the gun, didn’t feel the fear I did every time I see one. She gave no indication she even recognized him as a police officer. He was just another person on the fringe of her world.


Thank God she was a six year old girl at the time.


But I’m terrified for my friends with severely mentally ill teenage sons.


Those of you who have severely mentally ill children, children who suffer from psychosis, leave a comment either here or on the JF Facebook page what happens when you tell your child to “Stop!” while they are in a psychotic episode?


Now replace your house or apartment with a dark street outside a 7-11 and replace you with a cop with his/her gun drawn.


What do you do when the child you love displays violent behavior toward you?


What do you think the cop will do?


So what separates you from the cop, other than not having a 9mm Beretta strapped to your side?


You can tell the difference between your child and the disease they suffer from. You can attribute the violence or threatening behavior to the mental illness and not to your child who is, in that moment, no more than a puppet being pulled by malfunctioning neurons.


You spend your entire life trying to protect your child from the world and protect the world from your child.


But one day you won’t be there.


And your child’s brain will betray their body.


And if you are lucky, your child will just be tasered dozens of times.


And if you are unlucky, your child will lie in a pool of their own blood, simply because they suffer from a disease that can lead to uncontrollable behavior and inability to think logically.


How dare I ask if those sworn to protect and serve are cowards! They put their lives on the line every day!


Yes, they do. And many of them die for it.


Which perhaps makes the others a little too quick to pull the trigger on a “threat.” After all, these officers have wives, husbands, and children as well. They want to go home to them. Why take an unnecessary risk when a second of delay might be difference between the suspect going down and “officer down?”


No, they aren’t cowards. They are afraid. Maybe not even afraid for themselves. Maybe they are afraid of leaving their wives, husbands, and children with a neatly folded American flag.


But unfortunately that fear can also leave wives, husbands, children, and parents without a loved one. And just like that American flag is no consolation for your family’s loss of you, Officer, there will be consolation for our loss if you put a hail of bullets in our children.


Jani doesn’t fear the police. That’s good. I don’t want her to fear the police. I want her and Bodhi and every other mentally ill child to see the police for who they are: protectors of the innocent.


The mentally ill are innocent.


CIT training is a start, but it is not enough. As officers, you were not supposed to be mental health practitioners, but you’re going to have to be. Just like we parents. We will have to work together.


One thing that we can do together is destroy the obstacles like HiPPA that prevent you from calling us when you come across our children. I know there are other calls out there. I know dispatch wants this resolved. But isn’t cordoning off the area, holding back, and waiting for us parents to come better than shooting? I know you would want that if it were your child. Ask Ron Thomas. He was one of you. And now he is one of us.


The Jani Foundation plans to go a step beyond CIT training. We want to bring you to meet our children and bring our children to meet you. They need to learn, have it drilled into their heads, what they need to when confronted by your kind. And you need to learn how they see the world.


They may not see your gun.


But if we work together, maybe they can see you.