On an unseasonably warm evening last October, someone in the Bronx called 911 to report a woman roaming through an apartment building in the area, armed with scissors and behaving in an “irrational manner.” Sgt. Hugh Barry, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, responded to the call with five other officers.
When they arrived, they encountered 66-year-old Deborah Danner in the bedroom of her seventh-floor apartment, clutching a pair of scissors.
Barry persuaded Danner to put down the potential weapon, police officials said. But then she grabbed a wooden baseball bat and swung it toward the sergeant. He fired two shots from his service revolver, killing her.
Danner was schizophrenic, and her story is not unusual. One-quarter of Americans killed by police every year are mentally ill — a grim statistic that has resurfaced often in the wake of high-profile cases in which an officer has used lethal force on someone in the throes of a mental health crisis.
Danner’s killing, which led to the indictment of Barry on second-degree murder charges, was the impetus for an unusual meeting of 40 law enforcement unions around the country in New York last week. Their purpose was to shine a light on what some believe to be the biggest problem faced by American police: They’re just not trained or equipped to deal with the mentally ill, but they’re constantly expected to do so.
“We aren’t psychiatrists or psychologists,” said Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “Yet we’re put in these situations because the system that should be in place is failing, and puts this burden on us.”
It was the first time that police union members had met specifically to discuss the issue of mental health, and union leaders are launching a national lobbying effort in the hopes that the federal government will help pay for needed training, equipment, and programs, like “Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams,” which would pair cops with mental health professionals.
“We aren’t psychiatrists or psychologists. Yet we’re put in these situations because the system that should be in place is failing, and puts this burden on us.”
The indictment of Barry — it’s very rare for police to be indicted following fatal shootings — caused outrage among members of the law enforcement community, many of whom said Barry was being unfairly prosecuted for following NYPD protocol. Saggau believes the situation might have been avoided if Danner had been getting the mental health support she needed, or if Barry had known she was schizophrenic.
According to a 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated serious mental illness were 16 times more likely to encounter law enforcement than other civilians were.
“We hear from law enforcement every day that this is the single greatest problem that they’re dealing with,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. “They worry about these calls more than any others because they’re unpredictable and difficult to deal with.”
An analysis of fatal police shootings in 2015 by the Washington Post found that nine out of 10 victims who were mentally ill were armed, but that they were less likely to be wielding a firearm than non-mentally ill victims. Three out of 10 had a knife of some sort.
One thing union members are asking is for Congress to amend the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, so that law enforcement would be able to sidestep medical privacy regulations and find out when they receive a 9/11 call whether a particular individual has a history of mental health issues. ”That would let officers know what they’re walking into,” says Saggau.
Nearly 3,000 of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country already have Crisis Intervention Training programs in place. CIT was launched in 1988 amid outrage over an officer-involved killing of a mentally ill man in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, it’s a 40-hour training program that teaches members of law enforcement to recognize and de-escalate situations where an individual is having a mental health crisis.
During CIT training, cops are taught how to recognize that an individual they’re dealing with is mentally ill, rather than defiant. Once they’ve framed a person as being mentally ill, they are taught to switch gears to de-escalation. Rather than brandishing a firearm, which may aggravate a mentally ill person, officers are instructed to be patient and ask questions rather than bark orders. If a cop doesn’t recognize that an individual is mentally ill and claims that, as a result, they reasonably feared for their lives, their decision to use lethal force may be legally justifiable in a court of law.
“[Cops] worry about these calls more than any others because they’re unpredictable and difficult to deal with.”
When Danner was killed, the NYPD was one year into the rollout of its new Crisis Intervention Program, and Barry had not yet been trained in CIT. A report by the NYPD’s Office of Inspector General (conducted in the wake of Danner’s death) assessed whether the department had successfully implemented CIT, and found that whether one of the 2,500 CIT-trained officers out of more than 34,000 NYPD officers is dispatched to handle a call involving a mentally ill person is left “to random,” — a Russian roulette spinning over more than 400 mental crisis calls per day. The Memphis Model of CIT is considered the gold standard, and recommends departments train at least a quarter of all their officers in CIT.
Some cities, like San Diego and Houston, have “Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams” that pair cops with trained medical professionals. The NYPD and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, according to the same report, is currently developing a similar “co-response” team system for especially serious incidents. But as Laura Usher, director of Criminal Justice at the National Association of Mental Illness, points out, those kinds of partnerships are resource-intensive and, like CIT, don’t necessarily offer a sustainable solution to a much larger problem.
“This is a national crisis,” said Usher. “We’re often looking at the police side of it, but we’re not looking at the mental health services side of the puzzle. We have a mental health system that is pretty weak right now, and in danger of becoming much more weak with cuts to Medicaid… which will worsen an already bad situation, push more people onto the streets and into jails for minor crimes, which will add to the burden that police are already facing.”
“We need to make sure that law enforcement doesn’t have to deal with these people in the first place.”
Saggau says that union members spoke about how city officials need to do more to address the problem of mental illness in their communities. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, in any given year nearly 10 million — or 1 in 25 — adults in the U.S. have a serious mental illness that substantially impacts their daily activities.
Part of the problem is that state psychiatric services underwent significant cuts following the recession, leaving a vacuum for mentally ill individuals. Between 2009 and 2011, states cumulatively cut more than $1.8 billion from their budgets for services providing mental health support to adults and children. Some states, like South Carolina and Arizona, slashed their mental health services by more than 20 percent.
“We’re not gonna be able to train our way out of this problem,” said Snook. “We need to make sure that law enforcement doesn’t have to deal with these people in the first place.”
“The most severely ill, the most difficult patients,” Snook added, “they are unable to understand they need care, and the system is set up in a way to help only those who can voluntarily seek assistance. But if you think the CIA is after you, you’re not going to get voluntary care. So you end up in law enforcement’s hands.”
According to 2016 statistics from the New York City Mayor’s office, 35 percent of clients in homeless shelters have a serious mental illness. Nationally, about 25 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. are believed to have a serious mental illness. Of the nearly 10 million adults with a serious mental illness, only two-thirds reported receiving treatment within the past year.
“Our country does a great job at pointing fingers after something has happened,” said Saggau. “But lot of this comes down to a lack of funding and lack of money to help these folks. Someone is in the most dire situation of their life, and instead of a team of social workers responding, it’s a cop.”
In 2012, Deborah Danner wrote an essay titled “Living with Schizophrenia.” “Any chronic illness is a curse. Schizophrenia is no different,” Danner wrote. “One of the reasons it’s a curse is that the nature of the beast is a complete loss of control — of your emotions, of your intellect, your instincts, your common sense — basically of your sense of yourself.”