Law & the Courts

Criminal-Justice Officials Should Stand Up to Mental-Health Officials

An NYPD officer stands guard near the finish line ahead of the 2016 New York City Marathon in Central Park, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Police have become the real experts on serious mental illness.

The shooting of Saheed Vassell — a man who suffered serious, untreated mental illness — by New York City police has unleashed a firestorm of anti-police protest. But police rarely use force on mental-illness calls. When they do, it is often done because someone the mental-health system refused to treat became dangerous. It’s time for criminal-justice officials to tell the mental-health system how to do a better job so that police and sheriffs don’t have to go on these calls.

The responding officers who shot Vassell thought he had a gun because he was pretending to have a gun (actually a metal pipe) and was aiming it at people. Police had previously brought him to the hospital numerous times only to have the hospital release him without adequate follow-up care. That is the kind of problem police should force the mental-health system to fix. And the protesters should join them.

Having been to both police conferences and mental-health conferences, I am astounded by how differently they look at the problem. Mental-health advocates tend to look at stigma as the biggest problem facing the mentally ill, while police and the public look at violence as being more important. But mental-health advocates believe acknowledging violence creates stigma and therefore refuse to do it.

In the aftermath of these incidents, it is not uncommon for mental-health proponents to argue the mentally ill are no more dangerous than others. But the untreated seriously mentally ill are more dangerous. Twenty-nine percent of all line-of-duty deaths of police occur on calls related to emotionally disturbed persons. Last month the Secret Service reported that 64 percent of mass shootings in public spaces are mental-illness-related. But the past president of the American Psychiatric Association co-authored an op-ed bemoaning the fact that “mass shootings in the United States have prompted calls to address untreated serious mental illness.” Why? She believes “attributing mass violence to untreated serious mental illness stigmatizes.”

As someone with a seriously mentally ill relative, I don’t want advocates denying violence; I want them taking steps to reduce it. And that’s where the police can help. They know what has to be done.

Police have become the real experts on serious mental illness. Lompoc, Calif., police chief Pat Walsh has testified that “30–40 percent of all calls for service in Lompoc involved the mentally ill.” The Green Bay Press Gazette reports that the city’s “police respond to 20,000 to 32,000 mental illness–related incidents every year . . . amounting to 25 to 40 percent of the 80,000 calls for service the department receives annually.” Officers with the New York City police department go on 165,000 emotionally-disturbed-persons calls annually.

When I go to mental-illness conferences and ask what has to be done, the mental-health advocates propose reducing stigma, educating the public, hiring more “peer support workers” (people with mental illness), preventing mental illness even though serious mental illness cannot be prevented, and focusing on elementary schools, even though serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar, are primarily adult disorders. Their solutions are irrelevant to reducing violence. The closest they get is to acknowledging that violence is a problem is to call for better police training. But it is disingenuous to argue the untreated seriously mentally ill are no more violent than others while calling for police to be trained on how to reduce that violence. Even if the officers on scene had been trained to handle an emotionally disturbed person, they were not responding to an “EDP” call. They were responding to reports of a man pointing a gun at people.

Police have become major proponents of better treatment for the most seriously ill and have a wealth of knowledge on how to achieve it.

When I go to police conferences, they don’t think they need more training. They think the mental-health industry should provide more hospital beds so they have a place other than a jail where they can take the seriously mentally ill. They want the mental-health system to support easier-to-meet civil-commitment criteria that allow hospitalization before someone becomes a danger to himself or others, longer inpatient stays so patients are truly stabilized before discharge, more housing and clubhouses, and policies to ensure those discharged will stay in treatment when released. That can be accomplished through the use of long-acting injectable medications and court orders mandating that individuals stay in treatment while they are in the community.

Treatment Advocacy Center board member Chief (ret.) Michael Biasotti has explained what happens when officers try to take someone with mental illness to a hospital:

We wait hours for psychiatrists to evaluate them, only to find the doctor overrules us and refuses to admit the patient. If the individual is admitted, they will generally be discharged before being fully stabilized or having effective community services put in place. The easier solution for our officers is to take people with serious mental illness to jail, something we are loath to do to sick people who need help, not incarceration. But the mental health system gives us little choice.

Chief Biasotti understands the public outrage when persons with mental illness die because of a police action, but he isn’t sure the public grasps that “the last thing any police officer wants to do is pull out a gun. It’s a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. But increasingly officers are being forced to pull out their guns, and often it’s to protect the public from someone with untreated mental illness.” Police shouldn’t need to be the first responders for someone in a mental-health crisis. The fact they are reveals that the policies embraced by mental-health advocates have failed.

Every governor, mayor, senator, representative, and city-council member should call in their police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys, with mental-health officials not in the room, and listen to what they have to say. As a result of the mental-health system’s failures, police have become major proponents of better treatment for the most seriously ill and have a wealth of knowledge on how to achieve it. As Cheektowaga, N.Y., police chief David J. Zack told the Buffalo News, “You cannot arrest your way out of this problem.”

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