Dealing with mental health and law enforcement

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a new study released this week by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

According to the study, numbering fewer than 1 in 50 U.S. adults, individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4 and as many as half of all fatal police shootings. The authors conclude that because of this prevalence, reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.

“This is why I have been advocating for the restoration of mental health service across the country. Just look at the incidents of shootings, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicides. Much can be attributed to someone in a mental health crisis or suffering from underlying mental health conditions that are treatable. The true costs to society is astronomical,” Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Ware said. “Many of the people in our prisons and jails have mental health conditions. The treatment of those conditions greatly increases the costs of housing the incarcerated. Many of the people in our drug treatment centers are considered to have a dual diagnosis. Not only are they drug dependent, but they suffer from mental illness.

The report, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” urges lawmakers to reduce loss of life and the many social costs associated with police shootings by enacting public policies that will restore the mental health system so that individuals with severe mental illness are not left to deteriorate until their actions provoke a police response; fund reliable federal tracking and reporting of all incidents involving the use of deadly force by law enforcement, whether lethal or not; and assure that the role of mental illness in fatal police shootings is identified and reported in government data collection.

Responding to the FBI’s announcement this week that the agency will overhaul its much-criticized methods of collecting fatal-encounter data, John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center and a co-author of the study, said – “Unless the overhaul includes collecting mental health data, the role of mental illness will continue to be concealed from the public and lawmakers, and the most pragmatic and immediate approach to reducing fatal law enforcement encounters – treating the untreated – will remain overlooked.”

“I’ve said it before, law enforcement is often the first contact with someone in crisis,” Ware said. “Not all encounters can be de-escalated. When techniques fail, the result is often a violent encounter. Sometimes those violent encounters have ugly outcomes. We cannot continue to ignore this critical issue facing our communities.”

By Frank Lewis

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Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.