The death of a mum and college student in Chicago highlights a major problem with policing in America

Chicago policeAbel Uribe/Chicago TribuneMelvin Jones, facing camera, hugs Robin Andrews, both brothers of Bettie Jones, 55, in Jones’ living room after she was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in Chicago on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015

Chicago is on edge after police on Christmas Day shot and killed a 19-year-old college student who reportedly had mental health issues, along with his 55-year-old neighbour.

The case may be exposing problems in Chicago’s own police department, but it’s also bringing to light a major problem with policing in America: Police encounters with the mentally ill too often end in shootings.

In June, The Washington Post reported that about one-quarter of the 462 people shot to death by US police in the first half of 2015 were in the “throes of mental or emotional crisis.” In most cases, The Post found, police officers weren’t responding to a crime. Rather, they were responding to calls from family members or neighbours who noticed that a mentally unstable person was behaving oddly.

“This [is] a national crisis,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told The Post. “We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change.”

In the incident in Chicago, the father of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier called police after he noticed his son was behaving oddly, according to an account from the Chicago Tribune. Relatives of LeGrier told The New York Times that the young man had been banging a metal baseball bat on his father’s door. When they arrived, police said, they found a “combative subject,” according to The Times. Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old neighbour, was killed by accident, police say.

ChicagopoliceshootingScreengrab/CBSFifty-five-year-old Bettie Jones, left, and 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier

Quintonio LeGrier — who had been an honour student in high school — had mental health issues that began after he went away to Northern Illinois University, family members told the Tribune. LeGrier’s family is now calling for increased training for police officers on how to deal with the mentally ill.

The problem also received some attention last year, when New Mexico police shot and killed a mentally ill man named James Boyd who reportedly believed he was a federal agent who didn’t have to obey their orders.

“Many police departments have put in place training for officers in how to deal with mentally ill people, teaching them to defuse potentially volatile situations and to treat people who suffer from psychiatric illnesses with respect,” The New York Times reported after Boyd’s death. “But officers can sometimes make a crisis worse, either out of fear or in a reflexive effort to control the situation and enforce compliance.”

In recent years, police have had to encounter such situations more often because of diminishing services for the mentally ill in the US. Police received more than 130,000 “emotionally disturbed persons” calls last year — 23,000 more than in 2011, according to The Associated Press.

To be sure, many departments have responded to this increased need. The AP noted that over the summer, the New York Police Department (NYPD) launched a four-day program on dealing with the mentally ill that will be folded into standard training. Officers will have to take refresher courses every year, too.

For her part, Janet Cooksey, the mother of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, suggested that her family just wanted help for her son when they called on police.

“You call for help, and the police are supposed to serve us and protect us, and yet they take the lives,” she told The New York Times. “What’s wrong with that picture? It’s a badge to kill?”

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