Police Are Killing a Lot of Mentally Ill People

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Firing Range
Photo: Skip Nall/Corbis

Last August, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, who was wandering around outside of a St. Louis convenience store from which he had just stolen two energy drinks and a pack of pastries, was shot to death by police shortly after they arrived on the scene. It’s clear, from video of the incident, that Powell was in some sort of a mental-health crisis — in the moments before he was shot, he approached the officers with a knife, yelling at them to shoot him.

Deaths like Powell’s are a sadly common occurrence. As the Washington Post reports in a big, important new feature on police shootings of mentally ill people, in the first six months of this year 124 people who appeared to be in the throes of a mental-health crisis were killed by police — a number that accounts for a full quarter of all the people shot to death by police during this spam.

The piece, written by Wesley Lowery, Kimberly Kindy, and Keith L. Alexander, is worth reading in its entirely, but two key points jump out. The first is that the training police receive to deal with these sorts of encounters, commonly called crisis intervention training, or CIT, runs directly counter to their normal training. The authors write:

So far, police departments generally have not risen to the challenge. Although new recruits typically spend nearly 60 hours learning to handle a gun, according to a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, they receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning strategies for handling the mentally ill.

Otherwise, police are taught to employ tactics that tend to be counterproductive in such encounters, experts said. For example, most officers are trained to seize control when dealing with an armed suspect, often through stern, shouted commands. 

But yelling and pointing guns is “like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill,” said Ron Honberg, policy director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

That’s one of the fundamental problems here: Police work is, at least in high-pressure situations, pretty much diametrically opposed to mental-health work.

Which ties into the second point: Training itself is a good thing, and more of it would likely reduce the number of fatal encounters, but it has some inherent limitations. “The mentally ill are unpredictable,” the authors of the Post article write. “Moreover, police often have no way of knowing when they are dealing with a mentally ill person. Officers are routinely dispatched with information that is incomplete or wrong. And in a handful of cases this year, police were prodded to shoot someone who wanted to die.”

This echoes what Major Sam Cochran, a retired law-enforcement officer and CIT expert, told me when we were discussing Powell’s death. In that case, one of the officers actually was CIT certified, but it appeared the officers arrived on the scene prepared to deal with a robbery suspect — not with a mentally ill person in crisis. The training didn’t matter because the officers couldn’t even bring about a point at which it would have kicked in.

In other words, a lot of things have to go right for an encounter between the police and a mentally ill person to end favorably, even in those ideal cases in which the officers have CIT certification. There’s a reason police themselves don’t want to be first responders during mental-health emergencies: They just aren’t the ideal people to handle these situations. It’s unfortunate they’ve been forced into that role over and over, with tragic results.

Police Are Killing a Lot of Mentally Ill People