Once upon a time, you could be pretty much as strange as you wanted to be in public and people generally left you alone. Police might accost you to move along, but you never had to fear for your life from the police just for being homeless, weird, or acting erratically. Sure, they might take you in and lock you up for a day or two, but inevitably they’d either release you back to the streets, or to a psychiatric facility for an evaluation.
You worried about where your next meal was going to come from. You worried about what you’d do at night when the freezing temperatures set in. You worried whether you’d have enough will to survive yet another day.
The one thing you generally did not worry about was being shot by the police because of your odd behavior.
The times, they have changed. Now, more than half of police shootings, according to one recent investigation, involve people who are mentally ill.
Worse yet — no one seems to care.
Gone are the days when police worked hard to try and talk a man or woman down from whatever strange behavior they were exhibiting. Now any failure to cooperate with police directives combined with anything even resembling “threatening” behavior could result in your being shot:
There are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week , “a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”
You know the kind of “threatening” behavior I’m talking about, right?
In Saginaw, Mich., six police officers gun down a homeless, schizophrenic man in a vacant parking lot when he refuses to drop a small folding knife.
In Seattle, Wash., a police officer fatally shoots a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic as he crosses the street, carving a piece of wood with a pocket knife.
In Portland, Ore., police check on a man threatening suicide and wind up killing him with a single gunshot in the back.
And from another article on this report:
In September […] police in Houston shot dead a wheelchair-bound double-amputee diagnosed with severe mental health problems when officers saw him wave a shiny object (which turned out to be a pen) in the air.
Seriously? People are dying because an armed police officer is concerned about the danger a small pocketknife might pose? Or a pen??
Don’t get me wrong, I have the highest respect for police officers and those who serve our communities and our countries. But when statistics show that half the people you’re shooting are people with a mental health problem, not a criminal problem, that’s really eye-opening.
People care so little about these acts of violence, nobody is even tracking this data. “A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found no federal accounting of or reliable national data on police shootings of mentally ill people. State and local statistics are spotty and inconsistent…” Neither any of the national mental health associations — such as NAMI or Mental Health America — nor the U.S. Justice Department seem to care or have ever raised this as an issue. It took a newspaper’s reporting to bring this issue to light.
And perhaps more folks with mental illness are roaming the streets because of the relentless state budget cuts for those who are in the most need in our society:
At the same time, there’s broad agreement that an inadequate public mental health care system, further eroded by $4.53 billion in state-level budget cuts since 2009, has put police on the front lines of a crisis in our society that few officers are adequately trained to handle.
As a result, police officials across the country report spending more time and money responding to calls for service that involve mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people, but little data has been gathered to quantify the strain on public resources.
I’m dumbfounded by the findings of this investigation. Obviously there’s been a serious disconnect in recent years in helping to curb this growing problem — good officers making innocent mistakes because of inadequate training and lack of alternative resources in the community.
It’s time this problem started being addressed, so that more people don’t die simply because a police officer feels he or she has no other choice other than to fire their weapon.
For further reading…