Identifying the Problem at Its Source
Here’s the scenario:
You’re walking around your neighborhood at night, as is your custom. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by police. Their car lights flashing and their flashlights are blinding. They’re screaming at you, but you can’t hear them. You’re confused. You’re scared. You walk towards them, completely bewildered by the situation. That’s when they shoot you multiple times. And that’s how it ends.
What the cops didn’t know, of course, is that you have hearing problems. Or you don’t speak. Or you have dementia and were lost and confused. Or that noise and lights stopped your brain from functioning properly.
Sadly, this is the case for the hundreds of mentally ill Americans who are killed by police each year. Many of them couldn’t even defend themselves, and yet they were killed by those sworn to protect them.
One in Four
In April 2015, the Washington Post published a detailed analysis of fatal police shootings with a focus of how many of their victims had signs of mental illness.
On the chart above, every box accounts for somebody shot dead by police; every orange box indicates known signs of mental illness in the victim. Sadly, they make up no less than 25% of all deadly police shootings.
Understanding Mental Health
Of course, many of these cases are justified. All too often, [would-be] criminals or people in the midst of a violent episode that requires immediate police action are suffering from one form or another of a mental health disorder. In these situations, the police don’t always have time to stop and think.
Such was the case with Francisco Serna, a 73-year-old California man suffering from dementia. On December 12, he was walking around his neighborhood when police responded to a call of an armed man. (Police had been called earlier in the day as well due to Serna causing minor disturbances in the area.) As they arrived on the scene, the officers demanded he stand still and put his hands in the air, but Serna couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Then one policeman fired seven rounds, killing Serna—a husband, father, and grandfather—instantly.
The assistant police chief later commented, “It’s kind of hard to address [his mental health issues] in 20 seconds.”
Taking the Time
Sadly, few of us ever “take the time” to understand what someone else might be going through, and time is indeed precious for police when a possibly armed or dangerous suspect is involved.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, about half of the near-400 fatal police shootings reported by the Washington Post involved officers responding to a call from family or bystanders who believed the victim was acting suicidal, threatening, or violent. Still, this alarming statistic is nothing new. In a larger report, the Treatment Advocacy Center points out that between 1980 and 2008, “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”
So how do we work to protect these troubled members of our society while still allowing our police to perform their duty?