Justifiable Homicides by Police Resulting From Attacks by Allegedly Mentally Ill Rising

Mental health advocates are rightfully indignant because there appears to be an increasing number of persons allegedly with mental illness who are killed in altercations with police. In Dallas Bobby Bennett was shot by police after his mom called police for help. In Fullerton, Calif., officers are on trial in the death of Kelly Thomas. There were recent shootings in Vermont and Iowa that may appear unjustified. But in many more cases, the shootings are determined to be justified, in that police were properly exercising their responsibility to protect the public or their own safety.

A new report, "Justifiable Homicide: What is the Role of Mental Illness" by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs Association, assessed available data on justifiable homicides by law enforcement between 1980 and 2008 and found good news: Justifiable homicides by law enforcement decreased by 5 percent between 1980 and 2008. But it did find justifiable homicides resulting from an attack on a law enforcement increased by 67 percent, from an average of 153 to 255 such homicides per year.

According to the study at least half the attacks on officers were by persons with mental illness and many were apparently not taking their medications at the time of the shooting. Other studies suggest that approximately one-third of the shootings by law enforcement officers result from the victim attempting to commit "suicide-by-cop." These cases are a tragedy to the person with mental illness as well as law enforcement.

Chief Michael Biasotti, Immediate Past President of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police was a co-author of this study and a 2011 study that surveyed 2,400 senior law enforcement officers. That study, "Management of the Severely Mentally ill and its Effect on Homeland Security":

found police and sheriffs are being overwhelmed dealing with the unintended consequences of a policy change that in effect removed the daily care of our nation's severely mentally ill population from the medical community and placed it with the criminal justice system. ...This policy change has caused a spike in the frequency of arrests of severely mentally ill persons, prison and jail population and the homeless population...(and) has become a major consumer of law enforcement resources nationwide.

In an op-ed in Buffalo News, Chief Biasotti noted, "The last thing any police officer wants to do is pull out a gun. It's a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. But increasingly officers are being forced to pull out their guns, and often it's to protect the public from someone with untreated mental illness."

In almost all these incidents, the officers were called because the mental health system failed. Dr. Fuller Torrey, of the Treatment Advocacy Center and lead author of the Justifiable Homicide study previously noted, "We have two mental health systems in America. One for the higher functioning run by mental health departments and another for the more seriously ill run by criminal justice." The Justifiable Homicide Study was also co-authored by Sheriff Aaron D. Kennard (retired), Executive Director of the National Sheriffs' Association and Sheriff Don Eslinger of Seminole County, Fla. A 2010 study they co-authored with Dr. Torrey, found three times as many mentally ill are incarcerated as hospitalized. That's not right.

Fortunately, law enforcement leaders around the country are starting to fight back in an attempt to return care and treatment of the seriously ill to mental health departments. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart recently allowed 60 Minutes to film at his jail so the public can see what the mental health system is doing to persons with serious mental illness. He called "jails the new asylum" and noted that the same people who oppose keeping people in state psychiatric hospitals have no problem when the same people are shunted off to jails.

Most reports on criminalization of the mentally ill suggest the same solutions.
  • Change civil commitment laws so law enforcement officers can have individuals with mental illness evaluated for commitment before they become dangerous rather than forcing them to wait until after.
  • Make greater use of Assisted Outpatient Treatment. AOT allows judges to order mandatory and monitored treatment for a small group of seriously mentally ill revolving door patients who have a history of violence or needless hospitalizations. These individuals take up a disproportionate percentage of law enforcement time and resources. AOT has been show to reduce arrest, violence, incarceration and homelessness in this group.
  • Stop closing psychiatric hospitals and build more so beds are available to those who need it.
  • Force state and county mental health departments to focus their resources on the most seriously ill rather than the highest functioning.
  • Provide better training for officers.

DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a non-partisan think tank providing media and policymakers science based information on serious mental illness (not mental health).