I read the news twice every morning: first when I wake up and again during breakfast. One day, I sat in bed reading about a mother who watched her son get shot by a police officer during a schizophrenic episode. It was while I ate breakfast that I learned of Christian Hall, a 19-year-old student contemplating suicide who was fatally shot by the Pennsylvania State Police. Video evidence of the tragedy was leaked on social media, prompting outrage from the Asian American community and demands for justice.
However, filing murder charges against officers is just a temporary Band-Aid. These are not isolated cases; police officers are the de facto first responders to mental health crises despite no qualifications, no training and often an incomplete understanding of the situation. They take responsibility for a job extending far beyond their expertise, leading to interactions that shamefully reveal our society’s neglect of the most vulnerable people. When such incidents of violence occur, we are quick to blame the actions of officers in search of social justice, when in reality, the system we created is failing one of our society’s most vulnerable populations.
In 2015, The Washington Post started tallying the number of officer-involved deaths. Since then, more than 1,300 people have been killed, and within the first year, over 25% of them had a serious mental illness. Similarly, an internal review from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2015 reported that 37% of officer-involved shootings included people who had indications of mental illness. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, those with untreated mental illness were 16 times more likely to be killed by police, reinforcing the fact that the disconnect between officers and undiagnosed illnesses will only result in tragic, avoidable consequences.
Combined with racial prejudice, mental health crises with police involvement could be even more devastating. White men with mental illness are more likely to receive treatment and intervention, whereas Black men are criminalized for exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. The stark racial bias, when coupled with the lack of accessibility and affordability of the necessary resources to receive help and treatment for mental illnesses, leave Black, Indigenous and people of color suffering from mental illnesses in an even more vulnerable state.
The role of law enforcement in society is to promote public safety, limit criminal activity and deliver justice. Police officers attend Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which is designed to train officers in recognizing and alleviating emotional distress. But instead of spending adequate time on such training, police departments prioritize gun handling instead, dedicating an average of 60 hours to firearm training and only eight hours to the CIT model. Even with the existence of the CIT program, most officers have not even taken the course. Because of officers’ incompetence in handling mental health crises, they often fail to de-escalate the situation and may exacerbate the problem instead.
As our default emergency response, police officers bear the onus of resolving every crisis at hand. Their job demands authority, speed, intimidation and control. Whether we like it or not, the police have shown that they are timely and consistent. However, mental health crises are not the same as chasing down potential suspects, and the methods officers are familiar with end up being counterproductive.
“Calling police for help with someone undergoing a mental health crisis is like playing Russian roulette,” wrote Ganesha Martin, former chief of justice compliance for the Baltimore Police Department.
For police officers to intervene in mental health emergencies only criminalizes and further stigmatizes mental illnesses, leading people to believe that afflicted individuals are dangerous and should be controlled by force. Feeling suicidal is not a crime. Individuals in emotional distress require empathy and care, not criminalization. These interventions are complex and necessitate experienced professionals, not a feeble eight hours of training that some police officers have not even attended.
Surviving police encounters, however, is only the first trial. Those who suffer from serious mental illnesses are often imprisoned, isolated from society and left to be “fixed” by the criminal justice system.
Correctional facilities are the nation’s largest individual mental health providers, and law enforcement officers, moral or not, play directly into the hands of our corrupted system. In 1976, Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble ruled that prisons are constitutionally required to provide adequate medical care to inmates in their custody. Disregarding the vague wording of “adequate,” inmates are the only group of Americans with a constitutional right to health care. We have deprived citizens of sufficient care and failed to ensure their safety — why are we waiting for people to enter the justice system before we start helping?
We claim to protect those with mental health issues, but our system is underfunded and understaffed. Instead of a formal mental health system, officers, sheriffs and other correctional staff act as doctors, nurses and social workers, bearing the burden to treat mental illness — all on top of their formal responsibilities. In 2018, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 14% of inmates in federal and state prisons have a serious mental illness, in addition to the 26% of people diagnosed in local jails. Our solution to mental illness has always been institutionalization — we warehouse those with mental illnesses, churning them through our perverse criminal justice system with almost no hope of ever getting out.
It is no longer about individual cases. While extensive crisis training needs to be taken seriously and mandated for all law enforcement officers, mental health professionals should accompany crisis response teams to be mobilized at any time. On Feb. 22, the New York City Police Department and the Orlando Police Department announced the launch of pilot programs to test their creation of response teams that no longer include police but rather consist of licensed clinicians in their attempts to treat mental health crises as public health problems rather than safety issues. More cities and police departments should follow their examples and implement their own programs.
The insufficient amount of data about the true impact of police violence, not to mention the lack of funding in prison systems allocated to treating people with mental illnesses, hinders policy change in our broken system. What sort of country are we if we cannot even provide the most basic necessities and resources to those in need? Are we so unwilling to help those who are suffering every day that it is easier to lock them away than alleviate the issue?
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.