Mental Illness: A Smoking Gun

Policeman's hand on gun
Policeman's hand on gun

As of this week, nearly 950 people have been shot dead by police in 2015, according to data maintained by the Washington Post. Throughout the year, the conversation surrounding a number of these police shootings has centered on race, and justifiably so: Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire; 32 of the aforementioned 950 victims were black and unarmed. Just yesterday, Justice Department officials met with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to talk about their official investigation of the Chicago Police Department following the October 2014 fatal shooting of black teen

Laquan McDonald by white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke has since been indicted on six counts of murder, but wasn't charged until more than a year after the shooting.

And yet race isn't the only factor stacking the odds in cases of police shootings. A new study released last week by the Virginia-based nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center reported that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than people without. In fact, people with severe mental illness account for one in four of all fatal police encounters. One reason for this is that those suffering from mental disorders are more likely to come in contact with authority figures: Although less than four percent of the general population suffers from severe mental illness, they generate 10 percent of all calls for police services and they take up at least 20 percent of spots in American prisons -- where, it should be noted, they are often unable to get the care they need.

Another reason may be that police officers often lack the training to approach the mentally unstable, according to a report published earlier this year by the Washington Post. This lack of training, of course, makes little sense, given the significant size, and possible threat, of that very population -- of an estimated eight million Americans living with severe mental illness, half, according to the TAC report, are untreated.

There are a number of (somewhat obvious) solutions to this. Better, more directed training for officers in approaching those who may be mentally ill would be one. Another would be to work towards reducing the number of those possible encounters. Since the 1950s, the number of psychiatric beds in the U.S. has declined by about 90 percent; community health center funding has also been slashed across the board. And yet it seems to make sense: Treat the untreated, and fatalities will decrease.

Of course, there's reason to believe that mental illness may impact both sides of this equation. Amid the many recent, and increasingly violent, protests over police-involved shootings -- including ambushes and killings of officers with no identifiable motive other than the fact that they were in uniform -- law enforcement officials across the country have reported feeling heightened levels of anxiety. After two of his officers were killed in their car by shooters who'd made threats against police on social media, NYPD commissioner William Bratton said, "Let's face it, there's been, not just in New York but throughout the country, a very strong anti-police, anti-criminal-justice-system, ant-societal set of initiatives underway." In a recent Chicago University Law School forum, FBI Director James Comey called the combination of higher officer anxiety and increased crime "The Ferguson Effect," after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

There have not yet been conclusive studies looking at whether heightened officer anxiety has directly led to an uptick in police-related shootings, but the connection seems an easy one to make. For some officers in conflict situations, increased anxiety could lead to increased hesitation. For others, it could lead to increased reaction. As a mental disorder, anxiety is dominating, and can overpower thoughts and actions, and across America, its presence is only increasing. This can be critical on both sides of the firearm, not to mention an important reminder that mental illness is blind to both class and race.