Beyond the Narrative: Mental Health Crisis and Police-Involved Shootings

This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here

The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement officers have once again brought the fatal results of structural racism to the national narrative. In the wake of collective mourning and anger, as activists restarted the all-too-familiar routine of picking up the pieces and demanding solutions, the execution of five Dallas police officers at the hands of one individual threatened to spoil any progress and degrade the emerging space for dialogue. As details of the Dallas shooter’s life and possible motivation are being rapaciously unearthed by the media, his potential mental health troubles—linked to his time of service in the U.S. military—are filling internet pages everywhere.

This routine, too, has become familiar and frustrating. Individuals with mental illness, psychologists, and activists yet again are forced to reiterate that mental illness does not lead to violence against others. iustitia has commented on why focusing on mental illness in the wake of mass shootings is dangerous and risks stigmatization. But there is a mental health connection in police-involved shootings that has constantly evinced media coverage and consequently, solutions. This narrative serves to conceal a brewing crisis that must be unmasked and that lies at the intersection of police-involved shootings and mental illness.

It is estimated that nearly half of the individuals fatally shot by police suffer from mental illness. Many of them are individuals of color. However, official numbers and figures are unavailable and individuals with autism or intellectual disabilities are often lumped into these estimates without further investigation. An intensive investigation by the Star Tribune in Minnesota found that 45 percent of the people who died in confrontations with police in that state had a history of mental illness or were in the throes of a mental health crisis.

According to the Washington Post, as of July 11, 2016, 512 individuals have lost their lives in fatal encounters with law enforcement. If history is our prologue, based on those statistics, over 250 of them may have been suffering from mental illness. Police officers, often with little training on what to do when facing an individual with a mental health crisis, respond with lethal force, even when the person poses no threat to others.

The familiar story starts with an individual exhibiting serious signs of mental illness and a family feeling helpless and out of control. Out of desperation and a lack of resources, the family calls the police for help. In some cases, troubled individuals are looking to end their lives and carry non-lethal weapons to trigger their own death at the hands of police. Even though the individual poses no threat to others, the police—called in to protect—are too eager to oblige the individual’s wishes.

For communities of color, mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety, often resulting from community violence and violent encounters with law enforcement, is an unspoken crisis.  The decision to call the police in times of trouble is a particularly difficult one, and its lethal consequences are too frequent. Time and again, internal investigations of police-involved shootings determine that the officers’ actions are “justified.”

Journalism is an important tool for holding state systems accountable, but it cannot be the only one; especially when it does not lead to independent investigations or prosecutions. It is not incumbent upon the Washington Post to track fatal police shootings. The Star Tribune cannot be the only source for how many of those fatal encounters involve individuals with mental illness. States and the federal government should track all lethal encounters with the police, with a view to understanding its root causes and implementing reforms.

Recognizing the importance of law enforcement to communities, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement Officials reiterate the primary function of law enforcement to provide protection.  These principles, adopted in 1990 by the UN General Assembly, provide guidance to all UN Member States on the use of force by law enforcement. In addition to restricting the use of fire arms except in “self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury[,]” the principles call for training law enforcement officials on human rights, “peaceful settlement of conflicts, […] and the methods of persuasion, negotiation and mediation […] with a view to limiting the use of force and firearms.”

One reform that can be immediately implemented across all police forces is police training to recognize the signs of mental illness and diffuse such encounters. It should not be so easy to commit suicide by simply calling the local police force and inciting murder instead. 

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