Police response to individuals with mental illness, an issue that has taken center stage in Justice Department investigations in recent years, is again in the spotlight given a lengthy new report showing how often Baltimore officers forcibly detain people in crisis.
Justice Department investigators found that over a six-year period, mental illness played a role in at least 1 of every 5 cases in which a Baltimore officer used force — through handcuffs, stun guns and guns, for example — even if the person presented no immediate threat. At least one encounter ended in death.
Because of a lack of training, police end up in “unnecessarily violent” confrontations with people with mental health problems, the report concludes. In addition, they consistently failed to de-escalate situations and often escalated them, it says. In many cases, officers’ goal was to “bring the individual into immediate custody at all costs.”
But the report does more than list statistics; it lays bare the intimate details of actual cases. Doing so puts forward stories in what, for the Justice Department, is an unusual narrative.
For starters, meet a man the report calls Zachary.
In 2012, he called the police saying he was armed and threatening to do “something crazy.” A specially trained crisis intervention officer was not called, the Justice Department reported, and the first officer who arrived at Zachary’s home approached with his weapon drawn. Zachary opened the door. He held a lit cigarette in one hand, a knife in the other.
Three times, he was ordered to drop the knife, according to the report. He did not, and the officer opened fire, killing him.
“Although there is insufficient information to make a determination about the shooting itself,” the Justice Department found, “this incident shows how different tactics could have changed the outcome.”
In 2013, Baltimore police were called to transport a woman to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. Her name in the report is Ashley.
When officers arrived, Ashley was sitting on the ground at the back of a house. One fist was clenched.
“Don’t shoot me,” she yelled. One of the four officers on the scene asked her to empty her hands. She refused, according to the report. “You have to shoot me first, I am not giving it up,” she said.
Without trying to calm Ashley down “in any way,” the report says, the officers began to physically pry her hands open. She began kicking and swinging at them. An officer drew his stun gun and repeatedly fired it.
In her hands, officers found two vials. The contents — not identified in the report — spilled to the ground. Ashley was then taken to the hospital.
“Use of the taser in drive-stun mode three times against a woman experiencing crisis, who was unarmed, posed no serious threat to the officers or others, and was not being arrested for any crime, was unnecessary and unreasonable,” the Justice Department found.
Then there was “James,” a man with a history of mental illness and hospitalization. In 2010, his father called police after James stopped taking his medicine and again started acting bizarrely.
He was wearing a winter coat despite the hot weather and yelling at people on the street, according to the report.
Several officers responded to the scene. When they couldn’t persuade James to open a door in his apartment, they pried it open with a crowbar and began using Mace and a taser on him as he resisted being handcuffed.
“Despite the fact that James had committed no crime and there is no indication in the force report that he was a threat himself or the officers other than resisting handcuffing, the officers resorted to a highlevel of force to detain the man,” the department noted.
Laura Usher, manager of criminal justice and advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the Baltimore cases are troubling because “officers made no attempt to de-escalate” the situation.
“Police officers see difficult things all the time. And often they see people at their very worst,” Usher said. “They don’t have the realization that if they treat someone with compassion, slow things down, keep things calm,” that people with mental illness are more likely to comply, even if it means being handcuffed.
According to a database maintained by The Washington Post, nearly 1,000 people were fatally shot by police in 2015. In about a quarter of those cases, there were signs that mental illness played a role.
The trends for 2016 remain similar. As of Thursday, The Post has reported, 144 of the 584 fatal shootings involved mental illness.
Since 2012, at least three other large police departments have been forced to reform under court supervision because of how officers handle people with mental illness.
“In cities and states around the nation, the systems to provide services to support persons with mental illness are underfunded and inadequate,” Jonathan Smith, the former chief of the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Thursday via email. “Police have become the first, and in many cases the only, responders to people in a mental health crisis. Officers need the tools to ensure that these encounters are safe for both the officer and the person in crisis and that mental health issues are taken into account.”
In 2012, the Justice Department criticized the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon, saying encounters between officers and mentally ill residents too frequently result in a use of force. Examples “of this use of excessive force include a December 2010 incident when multiple officers resorted to repeated closed-fist punches and repeated shocking of a subject who was to be placed on a mental health hold,” according to a separate Justice Department report.
In 2014, the department said of the Albuquerque Police Department that fatal “confrontations with individuals experiencing mental health crises continue to cause significant public concern over the department’s ability and willingness to consider the safety and well-being of the individuals in distress.”
“We have seen in communities throughout the country that improved policies and enhanced training on de-escalation and dealing with people in crisis can enhance officer safety and reduce the need for force,” Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, said Wednesday in announcing the results of the agency’s probe of Baltimore police.
The Baltimore department will be forced to reform under a court-enforced, multiyear agreement.