The Need for Mental Health Toolkit

In 2015, one out of every four reported fatal shootings by police involved a person with a mental illness. This figure does not include injurious but non-deadly shootings.

Perhaps one of the most high-profile of these cases is that of Charles Kinsey, a mental health caretaker that was shot by the police when he tried to help an autistic man that wandered off in the street. In July of this year, North Miami Police responded to a 911 call indicating that an armed man in the street was threatening to suicide. The police then instructed Kinsey and the man with autism to drop on the ground. When the man with autism did not comply, the police shot three times.

In more recent news, a New York Police Department sergeant fatally shot Deborah Danner, 66 years old, on October 16, 2016 in her apartment after she allegedly swung a baseball bat at him. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, it was not the first time that the police responded to Ms. Danner’s home as a result of her behavior. Police had been dispatched to her apartment after a 911 call was placed detailing Ms. Danner’s erratic actions. This was one of more than 100,000 calls to the emergency call center about emotionally disturbed persons that the New York City police respond to every year. It was later determined that Ms. Danner diagnosed schizophrenic.

Police have been closely scrutinized lately amid a national debate about racially motivated use of deadly force. According to Lindsay Holmes, Deputy Healthy Living Editor of the Huffington Post, mental health “stigma” is a form of discrimination, and perhaps why many law enforcement officers do not know how to deal with mentally ill persons during an encounter.

What is being done about this? In 2015, New York City started providing its police officers advanced training on how to deal with people with mental illness. However, only about 4,400 of the 36,000 officers have been trained so far; the sergeant that fatally shot Ms. Danner had not.

In the District of Columbia, more than 650 Metropolitan Police Department officers are also crisis intervention officers. They receive several hours of training to better understand mental illness and how to better and safely respond to persons dealing with it. In surrounding areas, namely Montgomery County in Maryland, crisis intervention training is only voluntary and is offered four times a year. While more police departments are starting to implement crisis intervention programs, only about half of jurisdictions in America have some sort of program addressing mental health issues among police encounters.

Just last week on October 16, 2016 during the annual convention of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice would launch a mental health toolkit that would help police departments deal with crisis management involving the mentally ill. Secretary Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential candidate, has promised to allocate $1 billion of her first federal budget to law, if elected.

Whether such resources and promises will significantly help train police officers nationwide how to deal with mentally ill persons more appropriately and decrease the number of preventable deaths is hopeful. Such better training will not only help mentally ill persons and the community at large – it will also help police officers themselves.

As the mother of Laval Hall, a schizophrenic young man fatally shot by the police, said, “I think the police officerstheir lives are changed forever when they take the life of somebody like this. They deserve a chance at knowing how to handle these situations and many of them are not given that chance by being given the proper training.