What we do know is that the mentally ill are dramatically more likely to be the victims of excessive police force, and to be the victims of death by cop. A study by the Portland Press Herald in Maine found that nearly half of people shot by police between 2000 and 2012 were mentally ill, and that police lack proper training on defusing deadly conflicts. A KQED review in San Francisco this year found a similar proportion of mentally ill victims. In several other cities including Portland, Oregon, and Albequerque, New Mexico, Department of Justice investigations have concluded that officers have systematically used more force than necessary against the mentally ill, leading to deaths or serious injuries in many instances.
It’s a common scenario for police interactions with the mentally ill to escalate from what starts as a call for help. In fact, while Cleveland police didn’t turn to their guns, police do in many other instances. Last month, a psychiatric patient was shot and killed last month while being transported to a mental institution. One of the police shootings that prompted a scathing DOJ investigation of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police was a shooting of a suicidal Iraq War veteran who was pointing a gun at his own head. And last year, several prominent police shootings involved incidents in which family members of the victims had called the police for help.
Protocol that are typical for potentially violent incidents — such as barking police commands — can actually have an adverse impact on those with mental illness. Particularly in instances when police know before they arrive on the scene that a patient is suffering from mental illness — in fact is in need of police help precisely because of their mental illness — some police departments deploy special mental health crisis teams.
Among the recommendations of a 2012 report to police chiefs on the use of force against those with mental illness or addiction problems are “slowing down the situation” by getting a supervisor to the scene, and identifying “chronic consumers” of police services. But these tactics are under-employed in many police interventions.