We Need to Talk About Mental Illness and Police Shootings

New figureson the number of people shot by the LA Police Department during 2015 appear to showthat more thanone-third had mental health issues–a figure that campaigners say is eye opening but sadly not that surprising.

The figures were published as part of the LAPD’s 2015 Use of Force Year-End Reviewwhich was commissioned by the departmentwith the intent of analyzing officer-involved shootings and other uses of force during 2015. The LAPD also wanted to compare that data to the previous five years, and then from all of that try to build frameworks for better training and targeting interventions.

The figures from 2015 show that the overall use of force in contact between the police and the general public remains low at just over one incidentper 1,000 publicinteractions. In total, there were only 48 incidents where an officer used their gun during a public interaction, and only 38 of those involved actually firing and hitting someone. There were also around 1,825 uses of non-deadly/less than lethal force.

Commentators have noted that the overall figures areroughly what we’d expectand of themselves are not necessarily cause for concern.When we look at the characteristics of those people who were involved in these incidents though, two issues emerge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given what we know from incidents across America, eight of the 38 people struck by police gunfire were black. That’s just over 20 percent, when, according to the Los Angeles Times, the total number of African American people in LA is about 9 percent of the population.

This of course adds to discussions about how police services nationwide treat blackpeople and how people of color are significantly over-represented across the criminal justice system.To give some perspective, twenty-two (58 percent) of the people shot by officers were Latino. On the face of it that seemsmuch higher but Latinos make up almost half of the city’s entire population.

The other demographic that seems to be severely over-represented here are those people with a mental illness. In total, 14 people or 37 percent who were struck by police gunfire could be identified as having had a mental health problem. That is up on 2014′s data when just 19 percent were identified as having a mental illness.

To give that some kind of perspective though, the report notes that there was a 300 percent increase on 2014′s figures in the total number of suspects (involved in all police incidents) perceived to have a mental illness. To give further context, figurespublished in 2015 showed that by July of that yearover a quarter of all police shootings in the United States since January involved people with a history of mental illness. As such, while the LAPD’s figures represent a snapshot of this problem, this is by no means a purely Los Angeles issue.

However, analysts have noted that many of the shootings recorded inL.A. involved homeless people. It’s estimated that there are 12,500 long-term homeless people in the city. Due to economic disparities African Americans are more likely to be made homeless. Similarly, mentally ill people suffer disproportionately high rates of homelessness too.

There are a number of issues that can be unpacked from this data, including the details of various incidents that are still being picked over and ones that have led to protests against the LAPD.

One such story is that ofCharly Leundeu Keunang, a Cameroon-born man with a history of mental illnesswho was shot dead on March 1, 2015 following a confrontation with officers who were trying to dismantle a tent Keunang had reportedly put up on the pavement.

The officers claim that, after deploying taser fire due to Keunang becoming hostile, Keunang had reached for an officer’s gun. He was subsequently fatally shot.

His family have said this was a “cop-created killing” and launched a legal suit claiming police usedexcessive force and,among other allegations, that the attempt to grab the firearm was not made.

That shooting remains under investigation and so the LAPD cannot comment on it, however this case touched a nerve in that the LAPD has long been accused of needlessly escalating tensions with the homeless on skid row, many of whom are fromracial minorities or have a history of mental illness.

Putting those still substantial issues to one side, this does raise a significantly pressing question: How can officers safely interact with mentally ill people who may be at crisis point?

Campaigners say that police forces across the United States need more de-escalation training. The usual training for potentially hostile situations is to take control of the incident, often by using aggression as a means to disarm or restrain. However, a mentally ill person who may be confused and disoriented, or possibly even in the grip of psychosis, will not respond in the same way as other people and it may be this very act of aggression that can trigger or escalate a conflict.

Learning to let the person in question lead the situation and thereby trying to calm the individual is part of the complex deescalation process that can help to ensure that the suspect, the attending officers and the general public all come out of the situation intact.

The LAPD has committed to improving how it handles all crisis situations, with particular care for mentally ill people. Thishas been praised by advocates as an important step. However, many police departments across the Untied States do not have special programs in place to tackle this issue with the care it needs.

As these figures perhaps highlight, we need to have more conversations like this and demand better support not just from police departments but in terms of state funding and dedicated medical care if we are going to ensure that mentally ill people are, for one, not ending up in these crises situations to begin with and, two, when that does happen, that they are met with understanding and not brute force.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


.2 years ago

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

This is a shame, but a cop's job is to protect. If someone is threatening, they have to act. Family members need to get their loved one help before they become a threat to another person.

Pat P.
Pat P3 years ago

Cops in most U.S. cities/towns are not encouraged to deescalate a situation (or in many cases, even taught how). Their main concern is to get home, safely, at the end of the day, regardless of what they must do. They will, usually, be supported--at the worst, getting paid leave for murder. They believe "it's them or us" and don't realize that you can treat people humanely and still remain cautious and safe. Of course, there are those who enjoy the power play and control, and like to bully others. It is, for certain, that our PD's are increasingly militarized and authoritarian--facism, anyone?

NIMUE PENDRAGON: Although the U.S. should seriously reconsider the role of guns in our society, it won't happen in my lifetime. The NRA is too powerful, run by sociopaths who won't give up their weapons, but, in fact, would be happiest if every "law-abiding" citizen carried one to church. Every time we have a mass shooting/killing, the gun stores do a booming business--especially to those already well-armed who want to increase their inventory.

Céline Russo
Celine R3 years ago

I think they should get ideas from New Zealand's police!

Wendy Johnson-Niblick

I have read way too many stories about people calling 911 when a family member is in crisis, and then the cops show up and shoot him dead, without even trying to address the issue. Yeah, there are still times when cops work to reduce the danger in the community, but more and more, they are the danger.

Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

If in doubt, SHOOT, seems to be the motto of many police oifficers now.

Maxine Stopfer
Maxine Stopfer3 years ago

Police are so stressed and negative that their reactions to confrontations are to get the upper hand and ask questions later. That needs to change if we are ever going to correct the police brutality that seems to be rampant in our country.

barry Werbowsky
barry Werbowsky3 years ago

It's the old story.Police shoot first and ask question later!!! *HUGE SIGH!!* Thx

Christina Wilson
Christina Wilson3 years ago

Of course they are not able to tell if the person in question is mentally ill. Chances are good though, that they are, especially if they are behaving erratically. Even if they are, they are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect.