A new study in a Maine newspaper sheds light on a national problem of police and the fatal shooting of the mentally ill. And the findings are eye-opening.
According to the four-part series in the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, when police shoot to kill in high pressure situations, very often the targets of deadly force are the mentally ill.
And in the worst crises, law enforcement is unprepared to deal with people with mental health challenges. Proper training and the use of alternate tactics could prevent these tragedies and save lives in the process.
Nationwide, roughly half of the 357 to 500 people shot to death by police officers are mentally ill. Often, the officers were aware of the subject’s instability.
In Maine— where five fatal police shootings of the mentally ill last year led to this recent study—42 percent of people shot by police were mentally ill, including 58 percent of those who died from their injuries.
Most of the state’s 3,500 officers lacked the training to avert these fatal outcomes, with only 14 of 200 state troopers receiving crisis intervention training to avoid deadly conflicts. Further, the state Attorney General’s office, which investigates all police shootings, has ruled each of these shootings—51 deaths out of 101 shootings since 1990—was justified.
The office determines whether a shooting is justified by asking whether the officer reasonably believed deadly force would be used against him or someone else, and whether the officer reasonably believed deadly force was required to prevent it.
However, the review does not consider whether the use of deadly force could have been avoided, civil liability, or whether administrative action is warranted.
Meanwhile, the Maine Legislature established a new system in 2009 to review police shootings. When reviewing shootings by their departments, law enforcement must consider the facts of an incident; whether the relevant policy was clear and effective to cover the given situation; whether improvements are necessary to increase public or officer safety; whether training should be reviewed or revised, and whether equipment or other resources should be revised. Additionally, the team reviewing the incident should follow any contractual provisions regarding the police officers’ rights.
But three years and twenty shootings later, neither police agencies nor lawmakers have bothered to read the findings.
A more thorough review could have made a difference in the case of Katherine Paulson, 39. Paulson was shot to death by police in her mother’s Kennebunkport home in March 2011 after grabbing a kitchen knife and advancing towards the officer. Paulson, who was adopted and of Alaskan Eskimo heritage, had a history of mental illness and stopped taking her medication. Her mother called the police to have her voluntarily committed, so that she would take her medication. In the report justifying the officer’s actions, the Attorney General said, “Ms. Paulson’s state of mind, her motivation, or the medical or psychological foundation of her behavior and actions the evening of March 27, 2011 is beyond the scope of this report and beyond the authority and expertise of this office.”
In an administrative review, authorities investigating the shooting determined that while the officer had no other choice given Paulson’s close proximity, prior knowledge of Paulson’s mental illness by the police could have yielded a different outcome.
Similarly, in January 2011 Andrew Landry, 22, was fatally shot at point blank range by a sheriff’s deputy after charging at police with a knife at his aunt’s house in Lyman, Maine. His grandmother had called the police reporting Landry had been acting oddly. Landry had told relatives that if he had stabbed his cousin she wouldn’t bleed because she was a robot, and bad things were coming through electrical appliances in the house. Although the report from the Attorney General concluded the deputy had no choice but to fatally shoot Landry given the imminent threat he posed, his relatives now believe the police aggravated matters by charging into the house and provoking him.
Last year, out of 9 police shootings in Maine, 6 were fatalities, including 5 mentally ill people and one who was drunk.
The statistics coming from Maine pose a challenge to the criminal justice system to assess its handling of the mentally ill. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of county jail inmates have mental health issues. In the U.S., there are more mentally ill behind bars than in hospitals or treatment centers, as the mentally ill are three times more likely to be imprisoned than hospitalized. The problem began with the closing of government-run hospitals beginning in the 1980s, leaving few options for those living with mental illness.
Given the cuts to metal health services, the return of traumatized veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the widespread abuse of prescription drugs, the problem of police shootings of the mentally ill will only worsen, the Press Herald study warns.