The story repeats itself with grim consistency all over the country.
A distraught family member, unable to calm a loved one in the throes of a psychotic or suicidal episode, calls police, desperate for help.
Officers arrive, tensions quickly flare, guns are drawn, people panic — and a troubled life is extinguished, sometimes within seconds.
Later, family members — people such as Shirley Marshall — are left to sort through the aftermath, stricken by the feeling that their plea for help precipitated their relative’s death. Marshall’s son, Jason Harrison, a black man with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was killed last year by Dallas police after he refused to put down a screwdriver.
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Authorities said he lunged at officers eight seconds after they arrived at his mother’s home.
Asked for help
“I didn’t call for them to take him to the morgue,” Marshall told ABC News. “I called for medical help.”
“They could have Tasered him or something,” she added. “They didn’t have to come out straight with the deadly force.”
Marshall’s comments have been echoed by countless other families, most recently by the parents of Quintonio LeGrier, an emotionally disturbed college student, who was fatally shot by police in Chicago while he was home for holiday break. The encounter also claimed the life of LeGrier’s downstairs neighbor, 55-year-old Bettie Jones, who was opening the door for police when she was shot in a city already roiling from police killings of black residents.
Too often these calls come in and officers understandably think they need to take action right away. But in a medical emergency, slowing it down, getting additional resources and perhaps even stepping back is the direction that many are advocating.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum
And it prompted Chicago’s embattled mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to call for changes in how the city’s police officers are trained to respond to calls involving mental health crises.
In a statement on Sunday evening, Emanuel said he directed the Chicago Police Department’s interim superintendent to meet “as soon as possible” with the Independent Police Review Authority’s acting chief administrator “to review the Crisis Intervention Team training, around how officers respond to mental health crisis calls. I have asked that they determine the deficiencies in the current training, and determine what steps can be taken immediately to address them.”
Antonio LeGrier, Quintonio’s father, told the Chicago Sun-Times that although his son was holding a baseball bat when he was killed, police overreacted to a controllable situation, shooting him seven times.
The officer who killed his son, LeGrier said, almost immediately yelled, “F---, no, no, no; I thought he was lunging at me with the bat!”
“In my opinion, he knew he had messed up,” the boy’s father said of the officer. “It was senseless. He knew he had shot blindly, recklessly into the doorway, and now two people are dead because of it.”
An attorney for the LeGrier family said Monday that his clients have filed a wrongful-death suit against the city, alleging that police actions were “excessive and unreasonable” and that officers failed to provide his son with medical care.
The shooting may have shocked violence-plagued Chicago, but it followed a painfully familiar pattern.
A year-long Washington Post analysis found that police officers have fatally shot civilians nearly 1,000 times this year — and that about a quarter of those killed were mentally ill or experiencing an emotional crisis.
Officers fatally shot at least 247 people with mental health problems in 2015: 77 who were explicitly suicidal and 170 for whom police or family members confirmed a history of mental illness, according to The Post’s analysis. The youngest of the 247 victims, the Post investigation concluded, was 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard.
People with untreated mental illness are 16 times as likely to be killed during a police encounter as other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Though protesters often blame trigger-happy officers, the problem, according to some experts, is far more complicated.
“These shootings are tragedies for everybody involved,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told The Post. “Too often these calls come in and officers understandably think they need to take action right away. But in a medical emergency, slowing it down, getting additional resources and perhaps even stepping back is the direction that many are advocating.”
“You don’t blame the officers; you blame the training they receive,” Wexler said. “It is every police officer’s nightmare to have an outcome like what happened in Chicago this weekend. It really is. It’s not what any good officer wants.”
But the number of dead is so staggering, and an increasing wave of smartphone- and dashcam-recorded incidents so shocking, that minority communities in cities such as Chicago wonder aloud after shootings whether bad officers outnumber good ones.
The Post’s analysis found that about nine in 10 of the mentally troubled people killed by police were armed, usually with guns, but also with knives or other sharp objects.
The analysis also found that most of the victims died at the hands of officers who had not been trained to deal with the mentally ill.
In most of those cases, police were called by a relative or a neighbor who was worried about a mentally fragile person’s erratic behavior.
Yvonne Mote of Alabama dialed 911 in March out of desperation, hoping that police could help her brother, Shane Watkins, who suffered from schizophrenia.
Instead, he wound up dead.
Police are taught to be assertive and aggressive, to close in on a person, to raise their voices, to intimidate people who may pose threats, and, sometimes, maybe that works.
Ronald S. Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness
“A week after they killed my brother, there was an armed robbery,” Mote said. “That guy had a gun, and they arrested him without killing him. Why did they have to kill my brother, who only had a box cutter? I still don’t understand.”
Nearly a dozen of the mentally distraught people killed were military veterans, many of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their service, according to police or family members. Another was a former California Highway Patrol officer who had been forced into retirement after enduring a severe beating during a traffic stop that left him suffering from depression and PTSD.
In at least 45 cases, police were called to help someone get medical treatment, or after the person had tried and failed to get treatment on their own.
When interactions between police officers and mentally ill people spin out of control, it’s often because conventional police training directly clashes with effective tactics for resolving a typical mental health crisis, according to Ronald S. Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Police are taught to be assertive and aggressive, to close in on a person, to raise their voices, to intimidate people who may pose threats, and, sometimes, maybe that works,” Honberg, the alliance’s national director of policy and legal affairs, told The Post.
But, Honberg said, for someone hearing voices telling them that, say, the FBI or CIA is hunting them — a common delusion for people suffering from schizophrenia — law-enforcement uniforms, aggressive commands and “closing in on the person” tend to backfire.
“It’s going to accentuate the delusion that they’re under threat,” Honberg said. “When people think they’re under threat, they are more likely to react aggressively.”
Sandy Jo MacArthur is an assistant chief who oversees “mental response teams” for the Los Angeles Police Department, whose program is considered to be a national model. MacArthur said her department’s officers are trained to embrace tactics that may seem counterintuitive. Instead of rushing to take someone into custody, for instance, they try to slow things down and persuade the person to come with them.
When possible, a psychologist or psychiatrist is on the scene.
The mentally ill “do not process what is happening like a normal criminal,” MacArthur said. “There’s a lot of white noise in their head.”
Mental health experts say most police departments need to quadruple the amount of training that recruits receive for dealing with the mentally ill, requiring as much time in the crisis-intervention classroom as police currently spend on the shooting range.
But training is no panacea, experts caution.
I’ve seen burly officers break into a cold sweat and have to take off the headphones and say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea it was like that.’
Ronald S. Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, on police experiencing simulated psychosis via a multi-sensory 3-D simulation that recreates hallucinations and imaginary voices
The mentally ill are unpredictable. Moreover, police often have no way of knowing when they are dealing with a mentally ill person. Officers are routinely dispatched with information that is incomplete or wrong. And in a handful of cases this year, police were prodded to shoot someone who wanted to die.
Crisis-intervention training, known as CIT, is another program that trains officers to better manage calls involving mental health crises. In addition to educating police about mental health resources in their communities, the 40-hour training focuses on scenario-based role playing to help officers learn tactics for deescalating a crisis, said Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Among the most useful training exercises officers undergo in a CIT program, Honberg said, is using simulated psychosis via a multi-sensory 3-D simulation that recreates hallucinations and imaginary voices.
“I’ve seen burly officers break into a cold sweat and have to take off the headphones and say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea it was like that,’” Honberg said. “It changes their whole mind-set.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that there are 2,800 departments across the country with CIT programs, or about 15 percent of the jurisdictions nationwide.
Amy Watson, an associate professor in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told CNN that the difference between CIT-trained officers and those who haven’t received the training is stark.
“CIT-trained officers seem to have an idea of wanting to take time and wait it out to see if they can get the person to calm down,” Watson told the network. “Non-CIT-trained officers seem to have that point where ‘It’s on.’”
Sometimes, she said, police “walk into a situation and the gun’s already pointed, and they have few options at that point. But sometimes things escalate very quickly. CIT takes a step back and [gets] the person to calm down. CIT officers are better prepared to work through that and come to some kind of solution.”
No safety guarantee
And yet, experts say, the training is far from a guarantee of safety for mentally ill people who encounter police.
Chicago, Honberg noted, has for years been considered a model CIT city, one that the National Alliance on Mental Illness used as an example when New York officials claimed that their police force was too big to implement the program. Even model cities, however, are fighting a losing battle, he said.
“Even though there are a number of cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., that have invested in training for officers to defuse psychiatric crises, that doesn’t replace the need for the mental health system to respond to crises. There are far more jurisdictions in this country that have not invested in this training.”
Last year, Honberg noted, Chicago closed six mental health clinics.
Wexler agreed that a training overhaul is necessary, calling the current training received by most officers across the country “abysmal.”
CIT programs, he said, are good, yet insufficient because they don’t focus heavily enough on practical tactics.
Mental health history
He added that mental health training needs to include more officers as well as dispatchers, who can be trained to relay crucial mental health information highlighting someone’s history, medications and behavioral tendencies to officers before they respond to a call involving a psychiatric crisis.
“In these situations, ideally what you really want is as much information before you get to that call as possible,” Wexler told The Post. “What we’ve found is that dispatchers play a key role in obtaining that information. If officers know walking into a situation that it’s a medical emergency as opposed to a use-of-force situation, their response can be different.”
“Too often,” he said, “they have no idea what they’re going to find.”