State and local statistics are spotty and inconsistent, but a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems. In many cases, the officers knew that the subjects were disturbed, and they were dead in a matter of moments. And virtually all of the officers who pulled the trigger lacked training that might have prevented a tragedy.
The problem appears to be growing, cropping up regularly in news reports and at law enforcement conferences across the country. Mental-health and law-enforcement experts attribute some of the increased attention to greater public awareness of and sensitivity to mistreatment of the mentally ill. But while the Justice Department counts every assault, robbery and drunk-driving arrest — as well as every police officer shot on duty — it gathers no numbers on mentally ill people shot by police. Without concrete data to quantify the problem, target solutions and assess results, mental-health and law-enforcement experts agree that the issue cannot be addressed effectively.
Without a mandate from Congress to attack the problem nationally, there’s widespread reluctance to scrutinize police shootings of the mentally ill and little impetus to question the effectiveness of Justice Department grant programs that address the issue in very limited ways. At the same time, there’s broad agreement that an inadequate public mental health care system, further eroded by $4.53 billion in state-level budget cuts since 2009, has put police on the front lines of a crisis in our society that few officers are adequately trained to handle.
As a result, police officials across the country report spending more time and money responding to calls for service that involve mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people, but little data has been gathered to quantify the strain on public resources.