The Dangers of Calling the Police on the Mentally Ill

Men with guns and badges aren't equipped to be psychiatrists.

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Jun 2 2014, 6:30pm

Helmet-cam footage of Albuquerque, New Mexico, police confronting a mentally ill homeless man. The incident ended when the cops shot the man in the back and killed him. Screenshot via this YouTube video

After any mass killing comes the wave of stories that ask why no one saw the tragedy coming. Those who knew Elliot Rodger—who killed six people on May 23 in Santa Barbara, California—were likely aware he was disturbed. The 22-year-old had been under psychiatric care since the age of eight, according to the New York Times; Rodger suffered from anxiety, depression, and likely high-functioning autism, and he became progressively more and more isolated as he went through adolescence.

From what I’ve read, his parents tried to help him as best they could: His mother even called the cops when she found his distressing YouTube videos. On April 30, Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies questioned Rodger—who managed to talk them out of searching his apartment—but they apparently never actually watched the videos before deciding he wasn’t a threat to anyone else, nor did they check the relevant databases to see if he was a gun owner. It’s easy to criticize the authorities for not divining that this reclusive loner was more violent than other reclusive loners, or to tut-tut at Rodger’s parents for not persuading the police to respond more aggressively, but doing so ignores the serious consequences of calling the cops on a mentally ill relative, and how limited law enforcement's responses are.

On May 28, the Washington Post published an article on Bill and Tricia Lammers, who in 2012 turned in their 20-year-old mentally ill son Blaec for planning to shoot up a Walmart. Was it a good decision? Sure—except Blaec is now serving a 15-year prison sentence, and it’s not as if his psychiatric problems will have been healed when he gets out. That just underscores the inflexibility of the criminal justice system: All the cops can do, in cases like that of the Lammers, is charge someone for a crime, which in many cases means they’ll spend a long time behind bars.

Around a quarter of people in the US suffer from some type of mental illness, and about 6 percent are dealing with a serious disorder. If a disturbed person’s family thinks he is planning to do something horrific, it can be very difficult to convince medical professionals to help him against his will. That means that the cops are summoned to deal with situations where a psychiatric expert is needed “The mental-health system is totally broken,” Bill Lammers told the Post. “Calling the police is the only option.”

Deploying the cops against anyone in your family is not a decision to be taken lightly. Any time the authorities intervene there's a chance of someone getting seriously injured or killed, but cops and the mentally ill are a particularly deadly combination. Police in Fullerton, California, famously beat and killed Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia, in 2011; this March officers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shot a mentally ill homeless man in the back. And it’s not just wandering indigents who are killed this way. In too many incidents to list here, mentally ill individuals have ended SWAT standoffs by provoking cops into shooting them. By some estimates, half of of the 500-some victims of police shootings in America each year suffer from mental illness. Shootings like the one that Elliot Rodger perpetrated in California are relatively rare compared to incidents that end with a police bullet in the body of a mentally ill person—shouldn’t we be talking about policies that solve the latter problem as well as the former?

On to this week’s bad cops:

–On Wednesday, during the course of a 3 AM SWAT raid, a Georgia narcotics task force severely burned an 18-month-old after they threw a flashbang grenade into his playpen. His mother Alecia Phonesavanh told CNN that the toddler is now in a medically-induced coma. Members of the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department and the Cornelia Police Department who participated in the raid are apparently “devastated,” though Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the local DA already have decided that the police officers did nothing wrong during the operation, which ended in the arrest of an alleged meth dealer. Terrell did say that the SWAT team would have done things differently if they had known a child was in the house, so I guess the lesson here is MAKE SURE THERE ISN’T A FUCKING CHILD IN THE HOUSE BEFORE YOU BEGIN AN AGGRESSIVE NO-KNOCK RAID.

–Another drug raid, another death: Details on the killing of Joseph Wescott at the hands of the Tampa, Florida police are slim so far, but what is known sounds like familiar bullshit. The raid was conducted late on Tuesday night, and Wescott—a 29-year-old criminal mastermind previously arrested for driving without a license—was apparently armed and supposedly pointed that weapon at police. He had a marijuana grow op in his rented house, and whether he knew it was the cops who busting down the door or not, he’s now dead because he was producing a substance that will probably be legal in a few short years. Good job, officers. Totally worth it!

–On May 29, VICE News’s Natasha Lennard reported on a recent First Circuit District court decision that upheld the First Amendment right to film police in states covered by that court: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. Lennard noted that the judges made the right call before correctly dampening the glee by reminding us all that cops being filmed still get away with literal murder on occasion. Filming the police is good, but correcting their bad behavior is better.

–More than 120 Seattle police officers have filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of Justice, who in 2012 instituted federal standards for the department after repeated allegations of excessive force—fancy talk for “the cops were beating and sometimes killing people for very little reason.” The lawsuit asks for financial compensation and a complete reversal of the policy, which the lawsuit says "unreasonably restrict[s] and burden[s] Plaintiffs' right to use force reasonably required, to protect themselves and others from apparent harm and danger." Going to court to protest a policy that was instituted because your fellow officers killed people is one thing, but saying you should get a payout because of that policy? That’s true chutzpah right there.

–Over Memorial Day weekend, an officer with the Howard County, Maryland, police department saved a nine-year-old girl from drowning after her foot got caught under a rock. Sergeant Michael Johnson was patrolling a park by foot when he heard the girl screaming for help as she struggled in shoulder-high water. Johnson called for water rescue backup, but before it arrived he jumped in himself and managed to rescue the girl. Officer Johnson gets our Good Cop of the Week award for endangering his own life to save that of a little girl.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.

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