In the span of just a few minutes on the afternoon ofMarch 9, a man behaving erratically at an apartment complex near Atlanta was shot dead by police. It was the third known instance in just five days of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man.
The death of the victim, Anthony Hill, who likely suffered from mental illness, shocked neighbours and left many wondering why police didn’t pursue other, less final tactics, such as using a Taser.
“He probably didn’t feel like he had time,” law enforcement consultant Chuck Drago told Business Insider.
President of Crisis Intervention Team International, a program that offers training programs to police, Michael Woody was less understanding. “Wow,” he said. “I don’t understand that one at all.”
Regardless of the officer’s actions, many police departments struggle to handle situations concerning the mentally ill. “That’s where police departments fail the most,” said Drago, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience in law enforcement and government.
Anthony Hill’s story
Hill, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, had alluded to suffering from bipolar disorder on social media, and on that fateful Monday, he started wandering around his apartment complex completely naked.
Hill was “acting deranged, knocking on doors, and crawling around on the ground naked,” county police chief Cedric Alexander said. Other witnesses revealed Hill repeatedly swung and jumped from his second-story balcony.
Video taken that day shows Hill’s behaviour. The relevant footage begins around 33 seconds.
“To me, this is police abuse,” the complex’s groundskeeper Julio Hernandez told the New York Times. “Because what can a naked person do?”
An officer’s intuition, however, influences these split-second decisions even more than any standard protocol, according to Drago.
“What it comes down to is what the officer feels at the time,” he said.”If the officer is in fear for his life, he can use deadly force to thwart the threat.”
As for tasers, police aren’t required to wear them, although the officer who shot Hill did have one. Tasers don’t always work and only function properly within a 21-foot range, according to Taser International, one of the main suppliers of police tasers.
Regardless, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) will look into the incident. The Dekalb County police department referred additional questions to GBI which had no further information to release.
Until the investigation’s conclusion, Olsen is on leave.
But even if the panel doesn’t find any criminal negligence, there’s an alarming trend emerging — More than half of suspects shot by police every year are mentally ill.
“But then the big question is: What is the the police department going to do to make sure this never happens again?” Drago said.
What departments can do
Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) International — which Drago calls the “number one program” — shows police departments how to answer that question. The company offers “more than just training,” as its motto goes.
CIT helps departments choose officers to become members of a “special team for special people,” Woody told Business Insider. This team will respond to calls involving the mentally ill.
Woody tries to pick officers with high emotional intelligence, low reports of suspects resisting arrest and few complaints against them. They will handle “three to four times as many mentally ill” cases as other officers, he explained.
The Dekalb County police captain told the Times that Olsen had undergone training in dealing with the mentally ill but didn’t have more specific information since programs “may vary from year to year.”
“It just comes down to educating officers about what mental illness is all about,” Drago said. “We all fear the unknown, and when officers don’t understand mental illness, they react out of fear.”
In Woody’s eyes, however, the first step starts with dispatchers. CIT offers four hours of training to identify and handle calls involving the mentally ill. The dispatcher can then inform the appropriate team, which could avoid unnecessary escalation.
“We [police] can shoot them. If it’s going to be us or them, it’s going to be them,” Woody said. “But if the officers have another option, they can choose to take it so they don’t have to live with the fact that they took someone’s life.”
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