The widely reported case of a 27-year-old naked and unarmed veteran shot dead by an Atlanta-area police officer on Monday is raising questions about how law enforcement is trained to deal with suspects who may be suffering from mental illness.
It also underscores an alarming statistic: The mentally ill are responsible for only 4% of all violent crimes committed, but they make up more than half of all suspects shot and killed by police, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
The explanation for this high figure is twofold: police are encountering more mentally ill people than ever before, and they are not properly trained on how to deal with their often erratic and unpredictable behaviour.
Anthony Hill, who claimed to be bipolar in various Facebook and Twitter posts written in the days and hours leading up to his death, was lying face down on the ground — completely naked and mumbling incoherently — at his apartment complex outside Atlanta when an officer approached him in response to a 911 call from worried neighbours.
What happened next remains unclear. A maintenance worker told the New York Times that he saw Hill stand up with his hands raised and walk towards the officer, who looked frightened and ordered Hill to stop. Another resident claims to have seen Hill running towards the officer. Neither claim to know what prompted the shooting.
Hill, one of many
In the wake of a string of similar police shootings of mentally ill suspects, the incident again highlights the issue of the proper procedures used by the police to deal with individuals acting erratically.
Last January, 18-year-old Keith Vidal was having a schizophrenic episode when his parents called the police to help them calm him down. When they arrived, they pinned Vidal to the ground and shot him, claiming later that it was in self defence, CNN reported.
28-year-old Matthew Pollow, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by cops in Boca Raton, Florida. The officer who shot him claimed Pollow charged at him with a screwdriver and made him “fear for his life,” according to a local newspaper.
Because mentally ill suspects tend to be volatile, officers who lack sufficient training in crisis intervention may perceive their behaviour as a threat and react accordingly.
Fewer than 10% of DeKalb County police officers get specialised training on how to deal with the mentally ill, Captain Steven Fore of the DeKalb County police department told WABE. It remains unclear whether Robert Olsen, the white officer who shot Hill, was one of them.
Even if he had received training, it was likely insufficient: DeKalb County officers are considered equipped to deal with even the most erratic suspects a
fter only 6 hours of basic academy instruction, and only 70 out of 900 — or 7% — of police officers there have received crisis intervention training (CIT).
In addition to that, our department follows up at least every three years with an additional four hour block of instruction,” Fore said.
Nationwide, these numbers are fairly typical. The average police department provides its officers with 6 to 11 hours of crisis intervention training, Pat Strode of Georgia’s National Alliance on Mental Illness told Business Insider. Anything more extensive is purely voluntary.
Some departments put more effort into crisis intervention training than others. In Chicago, for example, such training involves 40 hours of specialised courses, and at least 18% of Chicago officers are CIT-certified, the Department of Justice reported last year.
The other 82%, however, are still responding to crisis calls even though they are not sufficiently trained to do so. This, too, is fairly typical across the country.
“Every police officer should receive training on how to deal with mentally ill suspects beyond the bare minimum,” Strode said. “But police are not the only ones who should know how to deal with mentally ill individuals in a crisis — who knows, if one of Anthony Hill’s neighbours had known how to calm him down, or who to call, he might be alive today.”
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