Police Encounters With the Mentally Ill Are Often Deadly, but They Don’t Have to Be

Crisis intervention training is on the rise, but more than 10,000 police departments still don’t use it.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Oct 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

It was just a week after 25-year-old Lavall Hall’s release from a mental hospital in Miami Gardens, Florida, when he was shot and killed by a police officer during a psychotic episode. “Get on the f---ing ground or you’re dead,” the officer can be heard yelling in a video captured by the dash cam in the officer’s car. Moments later, Hall was shot five times as he ran away.

Just that morning, Hall’s mother, Catherine Daniels, had called the police with a desperate plea for help with her mentally ill son. He had been threatening her with the handle of a broomstick as he paced back and forth in front of their home. Daniels was familiar with these episodes; her son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She told the police about his illness, just as she had previously. But the last time, they had taken him to the hospital.

“Why did they take my child’s life when I called for help?” Daniels asked at a rally before a city council meeting that took place after her son’s death.

It’s a question that many families have had to ask, and one many police departments are struggling to answer. In just the first six months of 2015, police shot and killed 124 people who were “in the throes of mental or emotional crisis,” according to The Washington Post. In the majority of these instances, relatives, neighbors, or bystanders called the police not because a crime had occurred, but because they were concerned about the well-being of the eventual victim. And in 50 of these encounters, the person in question had threatened suicide, according to the Post.

It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s the theory behind Crisis Intervention Training administered at state and local police departments around the country by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and its local chapters. They’ve facilitated the 40-hour training program at 2,800 law enforcement agencies in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to Laura Usher, NAMI’s crisis intervention training program manager.

“That’s a big number, but we still have a long way to go,” Usher told TakePart, noting that there are about 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies around the country. Rhode Island, West Virginia, Alabama, and Arkansas have no CIT-trained departments. Other states may have one or two counties covered, while some states, such as Ohio, have CIT-trained officers in almost every county. Usher often encounters departments that train officers for only two to eight hours, some of which have dubious curriculum on how to handle encounters with the mentally ill.

The CIT trainings bring together local mental health professionals, NAMI affiliate organizations, and mentally ill community members and their families. Officers are taught how to recognize signs of mental illness and differentiate them from other issues, such as drug use.

“What we found is typical police tactics tend to unnecessarily aggravate the person,” Usher said. “That can lead to a more violent interaction than we want to see. The training helps the officers create an environment for a safer interaction that calms the person and doesn’t involve much force.”

CIT’s origin is in tragedy. Back in the 1980s, members of the Memphis, Tennessee, NAMI chapter were pushing for police to train officers in how to handle encounters with the mentally ill. But after surveying 30 other police departments and finding that its eight hours of training was more than most, the department set the issue aside. Then, in 1987, Memphis police got a call that a mentally ill man with a large knife was cutting himself and threatening his family members. Officers arrived on the scene, and it wasn’t long before they shot and killed the man.

The 1987 killing and the community outcry that followed marked a turning point for Memphis, according to Major Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis lieutenant officer who was the first coordinator of the Memphis CIT program. Cochran now assists with trainings around the country.

“It was a major crisis,” Cochran told TakePart. “The question asked repeatedly was, could we have done more?”

The community decided the answer was yes, and the first 40-hour CIT program in the country was born. Drawing together the police, local affected families, and mental health providers, the city set the tone for a training program that has since been replicated throughout the country.

Other creative responses to tragic encounters between police and the mentally ill have cropped up in recent years. In Los Angeles, the LAPD is now deploying social workers, doctors, and nurses alongside officers to better handle the needs of people struggling with mental illness, and to attempt to divert them away from the criminal justice system.

While CIT and similar programs are seen as crucial, Usher and others recognize that the failings of police are often just a function of a broader failing by society. When it comes to mental health, police are forced to fill a gap left by a lack of funding and commitment to mental health services. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut $4.35 billion in public mental-health funding, Mother Jones found.

“This is an abject failure of our mental health system to provide support to people at any point,” Usher said. “The system has broken down—this should not be the purview of the criminal justice system.”

Indeed, U.S. prisons and jails have effectively replaced mental hospitals: More than half of people incarcerated in state correctional facilities have mental health problems, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Meanwhile, prisons and jails are poorly equipped to meet the needs of the mentally ill.

Cochran echoed these concerns.

“Our nation is fixated on training, and training is important, but it’s got to be more than that,” he said. “You can’t introduce a training program and walk away from infrastructures that aren’t working. If you don’t have operating mental-health systems in place, I’m afraid that officers are going to be very limited in what they can do.”