Skip to main content

Police vs. People With Mental Health Issues

Although not in the medical field, medical topics fascinate this author. Liz urges folks with any medical issues to see their doctors.

The protests about police brutality and shootings are growing larger

The protests about police brutality and shootings are growing larger

Too Much Brutality

Every day, it seems the news is reporting on some kind of out-of-control police action, whether it is unwarranted and unlawful search and seizure; trumped-up ‘resisting arrest’ claims; or worst of all, bogus claims of feeling their lives were in danger.

In this day of instant replay of nearly everything on social media, it is often quite obvious that the police were in no danger at all. However, they incorrectly perceived or invented a threat as an excuse to use deadly force.

For example, refer to the fatal shooting of Mario Woods in San Francisco on December 2, 2015. There are videos of this from several angles, and it is eminently clear that the man was posing no threat at all. In fact, he began walking away, and the only reason he was perceived to have “come at the officer,” was that the officer stepped directly in front of the man! This is clearly shown in the video.

And because of this needless action on the part of the officer, Woods was fatally shot.

Sadly, this scene is repeated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times every year. I won’t address the racial aspect—even though it is an obvious factor in far too many, nay, most of these cases. (worse in some parts of the country than in others). But that is not the focus of this article.

A Skewed Mindset

Unfortunately, many police officers have a mindset of “us or them; kill or be killed; shoot first and ask questions later.” This is in large part due to the militarization of many police forces, what with assault weapons, heavily armored ‘s.w.a.t.’ teams, and vehicles to match, they go into an area with an adversarial agenda from the start.

Also, in addition to the military-style equipment now being seen in police units nationwide, with a few rare exceptions, many if not most cops were in the military themselves, so the ‘us or them’ mindset is already entrenched when they join the civilian forces.

By the way, the term ‘cop,’ originated as an acronym for ‘Constable on Patrol.’ And that is what they should be doing; patrolling on foot, being on the lookout, getting to really know the people on their beat as people, and not as anonymous potential troublemakers. That way, when something is amiss, they won’t find the need to come in with guns blazing. On foot, it is possible to chat with folks casually. While driving in a car, that interaction is not possible.

This may be understandably difficult in large cities, but it is not impossible for the officers to have a general knowledge of who lives in their beat area; who does not belong; who has mental issues; who is a genuine threat; and so on.

Military-style police units for "people sweeping" are being used more widely

Military-style police units for "people sweeping" are being used more widely

People With Mental Illness

The saddest part of all of this concerns the fact that in too many of these incidents, the person killed by the police had no intentions of malice; they were merely suffering from some form of mental illness. And there are many, many such people. It is beginning to be recognized, and a start has been made at taking the concept of mental illness out of the shadows. Instead of locking people away as was shamefully done in years past, the topic can now be discussed much more openly, as there is less stigma attached. We’ve come a long way, but there is still much more to be done.

The mental health branch of medicine, which includes psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, registered nurses with a specialty in mental health, and numerous others, refers to a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM (now in its 5th Edition), for diagnosis and treatment of the many, many forms of mental disorders that we now know exist. These illnesses cover a wide range from those who are completely lacking in any ability to function in society, and who do live in special group homes or are hospitalized, to those you meet every day, and whom you would never suspect of having a mental illness.

The range is broad, and goes from those suffering from intellectual disability, to bipolar disorder, to anxiety and depression to autism, to schizophrenia and so many more. The complete list is, as the very existence of the DSM proves, an entire book’s worth of information.

None of these problems can be determined by a person's outward appearance.

None of these problems can be determined by a person's outward appearance.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

The Police Need Training

Sadly, as previously mentioned, all too many of the cases being discussed here involve someone with a mental illness of some degree. Someone may be outside, ranting, raving, brandishing a knife, or even a kitchen tool such as a rolling pin or frying pan, and yelling threats. Perhaps they are outside like that in cold weather, in their underwear, or less. That person is in crisis, suffering a mental breakdown. They need medical attention, not bullets.

Unfortunately, precious few police officers receive training in evaluating this kind of situation. Instead of recognizing that medical attention is needed, and calling an ambulance, they are all too ready to perceive a threat to themselves, and open fire because the person “did not comply with our commands.” Well, they could not respond or comply. They did not understand the order. Or perhaps the ‘voices in their head’ prevented them from even hearing the order.

Typical militaristic style of police training reflecting a 'them or us' mindset

Typical militaristic style of police training reflecting a 'them or us' mindset

An Example of What Can Happen

To illustrate, let me relate an incident that happened to a casual acquaintance of mine. He has a history of depression and anxiety, and was being treated by a psychiatrist, who had prescribed medication. At some point, the medication needed to be changed, but he needed to be off the original one first.

It was at this point that the problem began. It was four o’clock in the morning, and he was having a breakdown, crying uncontrollably. He was actually in bed, and holding his two-year-old son. His wife was unable to console him, and resorted to calling the emergency nine-one-one number. That turned out to be a mistake, especially because of the information she related. She said that he was under treatment, and was off his medications, and that she did not know how to calm him down. But with no further elaboration on the matter, the first responders were the police, and not the ambulance.

Even though she met them at the door, and told them he was not armed, they pushed past her, ran up the stairs to the bedroom, guns drawn, and pulled him out of bed. Then they handcuffed him and took him outside.

What a horrible thing for his son to witness! I can only imagine the mental scars that will be left on that little boy.

Now, if the officers had received proper training on dealing with people in an emotional crisis, this entire situation could have been avoided. Yet it happens again and again, day in and day out. Just change the names of the people, the cities in which they live, and the particular irrational behavior being displayed. The reaction of the police is the same.

If You Need Help

If you ever need to make such a phone call as the wife of my acquaintance, there are certain trigger words you should never use. They are:

  • Off medications
  • Out of control
  • Unarmed (may be interpreted that there are weapons available)

If you must call the emergency contact number, before you say anything at all about what is going on, let the dispatcher know that it is medical assistance that you need. Then you can go ahead and explain the person is suffering from a mental illness and is having an episode.

Even so, the police will sometimes show up with the ambulance. I’ve had occasion to call the emergency number several times for my husband, and I always state that I need medical assistance. The first to show up, before the ambulance in our city, is a fire truck with EMTs aboard. We’ve never encountered the police in those situations. Such is not the case in all areas.

Better idea: call a local mental health hotline, or, if available with your medical plan, an advice nurse. They can get into the emergency care system through a ‘back door,’ so to speak, and arrange an appropriate response.

Help Lines

Crisis numbers: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Veterans Crisis Line—(specifically tailored to veterans’ issues and sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs): 1-800-273-8255, select choice 1. Or text to 838255.

How Many Police Shootings of the Innocent?

This is but a very abbreviated set of examples. The actual list is long and horrific, amounting anywhere from a quarter to half (depending on the source) of all unjustified police shootings ending in fatality


14 September 2013

Johnathan Ferrell/24/Charlotte NC

(auto accident-seeking help)

19 April 2015

Freddie Gray/25/Baltimore MD

Developmental (lead paint)

18 August 2016

Joseph N. Weber/36/Hays/KS

Autism/Speech Impaired

20 September 2016

Keith L. Scott/43/Charlotte NC

TBI (prior motorcycle crash)

26 September 2016

Alfred Olango/30/El Cajon CA


More Training is Needed!

If we are to stop seeing these horrific news stories of people both young and old being gunned down by the police, without being given any recourse, then the police administrations must require training in recognizing mental issues as opposed to genuine threat issues.

Such training, should, in fact, be a required course of at least the equivalent of one college semester in learning to recognize when someone is not merely 'refusing to comply,' but may be unable to do so. While the situation may appear threatening to the untrained eye, and sometimes may be, there is still no excuse for using lethal weapons.

Alternatives are readily available, ranging from beanbag guns and rubber bullets, to net guns and tasers. All are non-lethal means of controlling a person who appears out of control, without killing them in cold blood.

Additionally, they should perhaps be trained in Aikido, which is a martial art designed for control and disarming of the other person without harming them.

In Conclusion

Now, there are obviously far more shootings involving people who were being the bad guys, in one way or another. My intent here is not to paint a skewed picture implying that everyone the cops shot was an innocent person suffering a mental illness.

No, I merely set out to portray that this is a tragic component of the many police-involved shootings and otherwise-caused-deaths of people while in police custody, and who were suffering from some sort of mental disability. And as we've seen, the range is wide.

Please be a voice for reason and compassion among law enforcement officers, and push for better training in this field. Thank you for reading.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Liz Elias

Related Articles