Fatal police encounters are approximately 16 times more likely among mentally ill patients, a recent study has revealed on Thursday, December 10.
Research was conducted by experts at the nonprofit organization Treatment Advocacy Center, whose purpose is to facilitate access to medical care and treatment for those suffering from psychiatric disorders.
As evidenced in a report titled “Overlooked in the Undercounted”, around a quarter of all confrontations with law enforcement which eventually prove fatal involve people who are mentally ill.
In fact, the probability that a person affected by severe psychiatric ailments will be killed when dealing with police is approximately 16 higher than that reported among the general population.
These incredibly elevated risks, no matter how alarming they may appear, could in fact be even more significant than this report suggests, since police reports don’t always document the mental health of those who were the victims of fatal police shootings.
As explained by John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center and study co-author, this is because many people who have such issues don’t benefit from effective medical assistance, and police officers aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable regarding the main signs of various mental disorders.
Sometimes, law enforcement finds the peculiar behavior of a person of unsound mind entirely suspicious, and wrongly assumes that a crime has been committed.
When trying to approach the alleged culprit, that individual sometimes reacts unpredictably, failing to follow the police officer’s instructions, and the encounter can even turn fatal.
In some other cases, other witnesses call to report strange incidents involving mentally ill individuals, and this is how innocent, but emotionally perturbed people are abusively arrested and taken into custody.
Instead, as Snook explained, especially now that many psychiatric hospitals have been shut down, more emphasis should be placed on providing treatment to those whose disorders significantly affect their lives, putting a strain on their relationship with others.
At the moment, around 7.9 million people in the United States suffer from severe mental problems, including schizophrenia, paranoia and bipolar disorder.
However, half of these mentally ill individuals don’t have any type of medication, and aren’t under the close supervision and guidance of a psychiatrist.
As a result, between 10% and 20% of all the incidents that law enforcement must deal with involve suspects of unsound mind, whose condition has left them destitute and roofless, or has driven them to commit minor crimes, including shoplifting, public urination or loitering.
Moreover, around a fifth all the people currently behind bars are actually mentally ill, and seldom receive medical assistance for their condition, as revealed by this new study.
Given these findings, experts at the Treatment Advocacy Center insist that police procedures should be reviewed and updated, so as to better identify people who suffer from psychiatric issues, and adapt one’s behavior to these special circumstances, by avoiding excessive force and knee-jerk reactions.
As emphasized by Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, this will be an extremely difficult undertaking, given that even highly qualified mental health specialists sometimes have trouble when trying to calm down their patients during psychotic episodes.
However, it’s not impossible to achieve progress by adopting such strategies: after around 4,600 police officers from Miami-Dade County participated in training of this kind, the number of fatal police encounters involving mentally ill individuals has dropped from 1 per month, to less than 1 per year.
Another recommendation is that police reports should also be more comprehensive, so that it can be easier to keep track of confrontations involving civilians with psychiatric disorders. This way, it will be possible to identify instances of unwarranted police brutality, so as to curb their prevalence in the future.
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