Michael Mahoney, 36, had a hard life, spending months in juvenile detention centers and six years in prison before deciding to turn things around. He enrolled in welding courses and cared for his ailing father in their Oxnard, California, home. Then his schizophrenia took over. He lived his last months in fear and paranoia, once screaming out, “Kill me!”
Then someone did.
Mahoney died Aug. 14 of a gunshot wound to the chest after three officers, responding to a report of a man with a weapon, fired on him. He was one of 64 mentally-ill people who died after being shot with a gun or electroshock device by U.S. law enforcement this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s about three times the number police indicated in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice survey, the last year for which statistics are available.
Data: Bloomberg News found 64 people who died in violent encounters with police in 2012. Click here for the full list. (None of the officers in the 64 incidents Bloomberg documented has been found criminally liable.)
At least 16 of the 64 had schizophrenia, were prone to violence and avoided taking medications. Some had been released from hospitals after stays families thought were too brief to be therapeutic. Mahoney spent 45 hours in a psychiatric center where he’d been confined for his own safety, discharged nine days before he died with a flare gun in his hand.
In Saginaw, Michigan, on July 1, it was a folding knife. Milton Hall, a 49-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia, was shot 46 times after six officers responded to a call that he’d left a convenience store without paying for a cup of coffee, according to the attorney for his estate, Debra Freid. Hall had “acted aggressively,” brandishing the knife, according to police.
Some of the 64 did serious harm to others. Pralith Pralourng, 32, had taken nothing for his schizophrenia for more than a year in July when he injured a coworker with a box-cutter at a San Francisco chocolate factory. Police shot and killed Pralourng when he turned the box-cutter on them.
“It is a shame that a bullet is what our mental health safety net has become,” said Louis Josephson, chief executive officer of Riverbend Community Mental Health Inc. in Concord, New Hampshire, which offers outpatient and residential programs.
The failures of the U.S. health care system in treating the seriously mentally ill have swelled the workload of police in all 50 states and put the emotionally disturbed at the mercy of officers who may have little or no training in defusing situations fueled by psychosis.
A preponderance of those in uniform have no idea how to deal with mental illness, and “man, are they quick to shoot,” said Michael Woody, president of CIT International, a Memphis- based nonprofit that organizes programs in 50 states and four countries in crisis intervention training, or CIT.
Only 10 percent of the nation’s 25,000 police departments offer CIT or teach de-escalation techniques to deal with the mentally ill in crises, psychotic or otherwise, according to a University of Memphis study.
In a 2011 survey, 82 percent of 2,400 police chiefs and sheriffs said calls to deal with the mentally ill had increased substantially over their time in office, according to Michael Biasotti, president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the department in New Windsor.
Now the use of force against the mentally ill is a major focus of U.S. Department of Justice investigations, according to Jonathan Smith, head of the agency’s civil rights special litigation section. “You’ve got your finger on what is among the largest issues in law enforcement,” he said.
Smith tied the shootings, in part, to the diminishment of U.S. health care for the mentally ill. The number of beds in state hospitals has plummeted 92 per cent to 42,385 in 2011 from the mid-1950s. Laws in 44 states designed to force the most seriously ill to stay on their medication are often underused or ignored, according to Brian Stettin of the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center.
The average duration of acute-care psychiatric hospital stays has dropped 60 percent since 1993, and is now at 7.8 days — far from the two weeks doctors say is the minimum for introducing new drug therapies and stabilizing patients.
- Half of Police Shootings Involve People with Mental Illness (psychcentral.com)
- Mentally Ill Cycle Through Dysfunctional System (huffingtonpost.com)