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Police Encounters During Mental Health Crises Don’t Have to Be Violent

Individuals facing mental health challenges deserve better treatment from police—and the rest of society. 

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest to demand justice for Daniel Prude, on September 3, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest to demand justice for Daniel Prude, on September 3, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

When Joseph Prude called the police on his brother, he was asking for help: Daniel Prude, who suffered from mental health problems, had run almost naked out of his Rochester, New York, house into the snow. When officers arrived, new video footage shows, the March 23 encounter quickly turned violent, and Prude died from asphyxiation under a hood that officers had put over his head.

Two years before, Shukri Ali Said of Georgia also died after leaving her house during a mental health crisis on April 23, 2018. Police, called in to help, found Said standing at an intersection holding a knife. Officers shot her five times in the neck and chest, killing her.

That same month, in New York, officers answered a 911 call about a Black man waving something that looked like a gun. In fact, it was a pipe. But when Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father with mental illness who was well-known in his Brooklyn community, pointed it at police, they shot him dead.

Prude, Vassell, and Said are among the hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in the United States killed by police every year. According to The Washington Post, 197 of the 999 people shot by police last year had a mental illness.

Police are almost always the first responders in cases of mental health crises in the United States, as they are in criminal and medical emergencies.

But the police—who are trained to give orders and use force when they feel endangered—are generally ill-equipped to handle people with mental health challenges.

From Deinstitutionalization to Disarray

As a disability and ethics scholar who focuses on criminal justice, I know this country has long failed to justly and humanely care for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.

For most of American history, people with mental health disabilities were locked away in hospital-like institutions, many of them state-run. Starting in the 1950s, the physical and sexual abuse common in these facilities, as well as other inhumane practices, spurred a decadeslong effort to close them down and return residents to the community.

This process, called deinstitutionalization, was meant to replace institutions with local mental health centers that would provide community-based mental health treatment and assistance for those recently released from institutions.

However, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan cut most funding for these centers. And because other existing community services—such as schools, housing, and health services—were not adapted to meet the needs of these new community members, many were left jobless, homeless, and unable to get a good education.

Today, the 15% of Americans with these disabilities still have little support.

Some people are fortunate enough to live with their families or in one of the United States’ roughly 500 private residential facilities—places that can cost up to $60,000 a year. Other people end up homeless, in poorly run facilities, or even in jails.

But everyone with these disabilities is at high risk of interacting with police. Too often, these interactions go poorly.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

In hopes of identifying practices that prevent avoidable deaths, I’ve been interviewing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Under the terms of the academic ethics boards overseeing my research, the names of all my interview subjects are protected.

One reason police encounters can go wrong, I’ve learned, is that people with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions—particularly in a high-stress situation.

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“People who don’t have [an intellectual disability] don’t have a hard time understanding what the police are asking them to do,” one man told me. “It’s different for me.”

Being overwhelmed can cause people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities to shut down. If this behavior is interpreted as obstinate, it can lead to arrest, detention, or police aggression.

People with these disabilities are also often disbelieved by the police. A woman I interviewed—who communicated slowly because of her disabilities—said she called 911 on her boyfriend for hitting her. But the police believed the boyfriend’s story that she was the violent one and arrested her instead.

“When they find out that you’re not capable of understanding what’s going on, it’s a free-for-all,” another interview subject told me.

People with intellectual disabilities may struggle in court, too. When one interviewee didn’t understand a judge’s question, he told me, he was sentenced to three months in county jail for disorderly conduct.

Judges and lawyers “need to listen to people that’s on disability,” said the woman arrested after calling 911 on her abusive partner, urging patience.

Strategies for Change

Recognizing that they struggle to handle people in mental crisis, many U.S. cities are trying to improve outcomes.

New York City trains some officers in crisis intervention and recently mandated that a social worker must accompany officers to such cases. Denver is looking to adopt a mobile crisis intervention program started in Oregon that ensures medics and crisis workers, not police, respond to mental health calls.

These and similar efforts nationwide are a step in the right direction. But my research indicates they may not go far enough.

Police frequently encounter people with psychiatric disabilities when someone calls 911 about a person acting unusually in public. If police perceive that person as potentially violent, the situation can quickly escalate.

That’s how Anthony Hill, a Black veteran found wandering around his Atlanta apartment complex naked, died in 2015. Hill, who had gone off his medication, ran toward Officer Robert Olsen, who shot him. Olsen was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Nov. 1, 2019, for aggravated assault and violating his oath of office.

Nor do laws targeting police violence address the factors that lead people with mental health disabilities to need emergency assistance in the first place.

Despite growing recognition of the stigma around mental illness, people with mental health disabilities are often still feared, pitied, and associated with violence in TV and movies. This social stigma can lead to societal rejection and isolation. And the difficulties people with mental health challenges face finding adequate housing, health care, and employment all increase their risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.

One lesson from the history of American mental health care is that reforming just one problematic aspect of the system doesn’t work. To serve this population’s needs, other institutions—from education to housing—must also be made more flexible, responsive, and accessible.

Just as shuttering institutions 60 years ago solved little, simply targeting police responses won’t suffice now, either.

Jennifer Sarrett

Jennifer Sarrett

Jennifer Sarrett is a lecturer at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health, where she teaches courses in health, ethics, human rights, and disability. Her work focuses on intellectual and developmental disabilities as they relate to culture, disability rights, and ethics. 

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