The recent deaths of Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner of New York City, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland have brought to the national consciousness painful questions about race and police response. Clearly, much hard work needs to be done to examine these questions further and find solutions. Although there is no indication that any of these victims had mental health or developmental issues, their deaths beg a subsequent question: “what happens when persons with disabilities or those with mental health issues interact with law enforcement?” It’s an important question because up to 15% of all 911 calls in our country involve suspects who either have a mental illness or another disability. And the sad answer to the question is that these suspects fare very, very badly. Approximately half of those shot by police in the line of duty are estimated to have had mental health problems or other disabilities.
“Justifiable homicides” are deaths that occur when police are either in pursuit of a criminal or deaths that occur when police are directly threatened by a suspect. The FBI for the past 70 years has tracked the number of justifiable homicides under the Uniform Crime Report program, which compiles data voluntarily obtained from approximately 95% of the nation’s police forces. According to FBI data, the average number of justifiable homicides in the years 2005 to 2008 was 374. But within this number there is no accounting for whether the deaths were related to mental illness. Data on assaults, burglaries, drunk driving, shootings of police officers, etc. are all meticulously tracked but not justifiable homicides related to mental illness. Much of the information we have is culled by reporters from newspaper articles. The Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Justice Department, which also collects data on justifiable homicides, added a question to its reporting forms in 2009 asking whether the “deceased” showed any evidence of mental health problems. Due to the incompleteness of the responses, the question was later dropped. According to a multi-part 2012 investigative series from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, “without concrete data to quantify the problem, target solutions and assess results, mental-health and law-enforcement experts agree that the issue cannot be addressed effectively.“
Ron Honberg,director of national policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), stringently argues for both the rights of the mentally ill and recognizes their overincarceration. Yet Honberg said he tries to avoid “Monday-morning quarterbacking” of officers responding to crisis calls because these are dangerous situations for responding officers, also. According to Honberg, police have been left in an untenable position as being first responders to persons with untreated mental illness due to dramatic cuts in mental health funding. Additionally, Honberg said that there are incentives for police to not report this information,including issues of privacy or potential for lawsuits.
But we do have plenty of anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the frequency with which law enforcement mistakes non-compliance for criminality or misunderstands the signs of disability. A 26-year-old man with Down syndrome died of a crushed larynx after he was removed by force from a movie theater. In Seattle, a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic was shot dead by police as he crossed a street while carving a piece of wood with a pocket knife. A man in insulin shock was beaten by police who believed he was drunk driving. A deaf man who was ill and unable to hear the pounding of police officers at a bathroom door was tasered. And the list goes on and on.
Congress is finally responding to the outcry from these tragedies. Last April, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on ”Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety.” Numerous individuals, including the mother the young man with Down syndrome who died in the movie theater, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on how law enforcement officials respond to persons with emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities, and what needs to happen to minimize violence to this very vulnerable population. As pointed out by Denise O’Donnell, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs (OJP), persons with serious mental illness are 2.5 times to 12 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator of it. Only 3 to 5% of the seriously mentally ill are at risk of perpetrating violence. Although the mentally ill are more likely to need protection from police rather than commit a crime, they are far more likely to be incarcerated than their numbers warrant. One OJP study showed that 64% of jailed individuals reported symptoms of a mental health disorder or were recently diagnosed or treated for one. Pete Earley, another parent who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, reported that the largest public mental health facilities in 44 of 55 states are jails and prisons.
One of the chief reccomendations from numerous speakers was a request for passage of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act of 2013. As stated by Judge Jay Quam of Minnesota, every state has a tragic story that highlights the failure of law enforcement to recognize and meet the needs of citizens with mental health conditions. One of the key components of the JMHCA is that it provides funding to train police officers to respond more safely to the needs of suspects with mental illness or developmental disorders by use of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), developed by the University of Memphis and known as the Memphis Model. Sam Cochran, who helped develop the Memphis Model in 1998 in conjunction with community partners such as NAMI, said “special people need special officers.”
The goal of CIT is to provide responding officers with the tools for effectively and safely interacting with someone in crisis in an effort to de-escalate situations and reduce the use of violence. Whereas most police departments routinely offer their trainees anywhere from 2 to 9 hours of curriculum on interacting with citizens with special needs, CIT curriculum offers 40 hours of training. Officers are provided with intervention strategies and learn how to collaborate with adult and child social service agencies in order to provide appropriate mental health referrals rather than automatically transfer the suspects to lock-ups. Whether the suspects land in jails or are diverted to mental health facilities largely depends upon the training of the officers.
Chicago is one of 2,800 CIT programs nationwide. All but four states have CIT teams. According to Alfonza Wysinger, First Deputy Superintendent, Chicago Police Department who testified before the Committee, approximately 1,800 officers are CIT trained. Over a three-year period, Chicago CIT officers responded to just over 25% of 911 calls that were designated by dispatchers as having a mental health component. Thus, many more officers need training. What the Chicago police appear to take particular pride in, however, is that of the 2,992 CIT responses in 2012, approximately 56.5% resulted in non-criminal diversions of suspects to mental health evaluations or intake facilities. They did not go to jail.
Lt. Michael Woody, Ret., Akron Ohio Police Department said that it was clear to him when he began to set up a training program in Akron that the criminal justice and mental health systems "knew very little about each other," which made it all the more imperative that agencies collaborate with each other. Lt. Woody felt that mental health providers shadowing police officers on their calls and police officers visiting mental health facilities were instrumental in forging the necessary linkages among providers. To Lt. Woody, an effective CIT officer is an officer who can communicate with a calm and caring voice in order to de-escalate the situation in addition to using open, non-threatening body language. CIT officers want to listen to the suspect’s story, “because they (suspects) always got a story, or something they want to talk about.” Ultimately, a CIT officer is “not so quick to game tackle or give commands,” according to Lt. Woody. The “true genius” of a CIT program, according to Lt. Woody, is that officers get to know the vulnerable members of their community on a “good day, when they’re feeling healthy and happy” and not wait to encounter the individual when they’re in a crisis.
We were curious how of this information translates to Buffalo Grove, the Chicago suburb in which I live and work. Of the approximately 61 officers on the BG force, 9 are CIT trained. At any given time 2 to 3 CIT officers are on duty, ensuring that a trained officer will likely be available to respond to a crisis call. According to Officer Kupsak, one of BG’s CIT officers, the department’s goal is to foster trust among the disabled, their families, and the police so that those citizens with special needs or disabilities will want to call the police for help. The process begins by the family filling out an online form describing the needs of their family members, including how the person communicates and what comforts/upsets him or her. Additionally, Buffalo Grove police officers are willing to visit homes or schools, in uniform or not, to help develop relationships with the person with special needs. In an emergency, therefore, an officer who ideally has already developed a trusting relationship with the individual will be able to respond to the call.
Not everyone is a fan of CIT. Critics argue that the studies justifying its effectiveness are weak. Often there is nowhere for police officers to refer the individual in crisis. Anecdotally, some officers spend hours transporting individuals for mental health support. But the chief criticism of CIT is that it is merely a band-aid; it is not addressing the primary issue which is that mental health funding has been slashed across the board. Ultimately, police officers are not mental health workers; they are law enforcement and it is “illogical” to transfer responsibility for persons with mental illness from mental health professionals to law enforcement officers. Even though increasing funding for CIT programs and passage of the JMHCA may not alleviate all of these issues, they can certainly help to educate and train better those law enforcement officers who are for now the ones most likely to respond to those in crisis.