CIT: a solution for police interaction with the mentally ill

Eight hundred and ninety-six people have been killed by police in the United States since January 1st.  I have had to update the total each morning as I wrote this post.  That boils down to 88.6 people per month.  Were this rate to continue, we’ll fall just short of 2015’s total of 1,146 fatal police shootings.  How does the U.S. compare to other countries?  England and Wales have experienced 55 fatal police shooting in the last 24 years.  Fifty-nine people were killed in the U.S. in the first 24 days of 2015.  Iceland, ranked 15th globally for gun ownership per capita, had one fatal police shooting in 2013, the first since it gained independence in 1944.

In the U.S., hardly a day goes by without a fatal police shooting.  The stories that make the nightly news and overwhelm our Facebook and Twitter feeds depict white cops shooting black men.  These shootings have fanned the flame of civil unrest in cities like Ferguson, Missouri and led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.  In a recent article, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. found no evidence of racial bias in police shootings.  Highlights of the study, culled from thousands of reports from 10 police departments in California, Texas, and Florida, found that while minorities are much more likely to be targeted by police and subject to unwarranted stops, frisks, and physical restraints, race was not a motivating factor in fatal shootings.

These findings echo an analysis based on data from the U.S. and Australia.  Researchers found that 1 of every 291 stops or arrests ends in injury or death, but minorities and whites face the same risk.  Both studies got at least one aspect correct.  White people are killed by police officers in large numbers.  Per the Guardian’s definitive record of police shootings, The Counted, 584 of those 1,146 killed in 2015 were white.  One hundred and five were unarmed.  Comparatively, 306 were Black, 79 unarmed.

Those numbers are comparable until adjusted for population.  Per the 2010 U.S. Census, there are approximately 200 million white people compared to 40 million Black.  Do the math and you will find that Black people are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.  Stories in the Washington Post and Vox corroborate and further debunk the source article’s claims:

For one, the study is looking at a very limited pool of police departments in terms of shootings: 10 jurisdictions in three states in the first data set, and just Houston in the second data set. The study even acknowledges that there are questions about whether the data is nationally representative.

Worse, the data runs into a big problem with selection bias. For police shootings, the researchers looked at data that police departments gave up willingly. A few, including New York City, didn’t hand over their shooting data to the researchers. It’s possible the police departments that refused did so because their data would confirm racial biases. We just don’t know.

This all leads to today’s video, a twist on the all-too-common theme.  This is the story of Charles Kinsey, a Black behavioral therapist, who was shot while attempting to deescalate a situation involving an autistic client.

If you question why police guns were trained on Charles Kinsey while he worked, you must also ask why they were pointed at a young, autistic man in distress.  The answer is as simple as it is maddening.  Despite what the media reports, the mentally ill and disabled are likely the population most subject to police shootings.

In the case of Charles Kinsey, the bullet that struck his leg was meant for his autistic charge.  Police responded to a 911 call that placed Kinsey and Arnaldo Eluid Rios in the road.  The caller cautioned the police about a possible weapon, what turned out to be a toy truck, in Rio’s possession.  When police arrived, Kinsey assumed the position while he attempted to convince Rios to lie on the ground.  Despite Kinsey’s pleas for the police not to shoot as he worked to deescalate the situation, an officer fired.  A statement by the officer’s lawyer affirms his intent:

This was not an accidental discharge.  This was a very real perceived threat to the officer — and it simply missed the mark. He had a fear the Mr. Kinsey was going to be killed.

While this story gained national attention, at its heart, the fatal police shootings of people with mental illness or a disability are far too common and under-reported.  Depending on the source, one-quarter to one-half of all police shootings involve a mentally ill or disabled victim.

The vast majority were armed, but in most cases, the police officers who shot them were not responding to reports of a crime. More often, the police officers were called by relatives, neighbors or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically, reports show. More than 50 people were explicitly suicidal.

After the widespread closure of state-funded mental health facilities and an inadequate infrastructure to treat veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, police have become front-line mental health workers with little to no training.  A recent study by the Police Executive Research Forum found that cops-in-training receive 60 hours of gun handling instruction, compared to 8 hours of training to respond to the needs of the mentally ill or crisis deescalation.

A late-breaking policy statement adopted at the recent American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting speaks directly to this conflict and asks public health workers and government agencies to work together to reverse the frightening trend:

LB-16-02 Addressing law enforcement violence — In the context of violent and sometimes lethal encounters between law enforcement, people of color and people in marginalized communities, calls for a public health strategy for preventing law enforcement violence that has four main elements: decriminalization; robust police accountability measures; increased investment in racial and economic equity policies; and community-based alternatives for addressing harms and preventing violence and crime. Urges the U.S. Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists to work with fellow public health experts to create surveillance protocols for law enforcement-related injuries and deaths. Calls on Congress to fund research on the health consequences of police violence, and encourages federal, state and local officials and law enforcement agencies to engage review of those law enforcement agencies’ policies and practices and eliminate those that lead to disproportionate violence against specific populations. Calls on government to reverse the militarization of police and on officials at all levels to fund community-based violence prevention programs.

One such violence prevention program is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).  CIT is a program that brings law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency departments, and individuals with mental illness and their families to improve responses to those in crisis.  After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau had used excessive, occasionally lethal force, when dealing with the mentally ill, officers enrolled in CIT.

“It’s really about a culture shift,” said Lt. Tashia Hager, who heads the unit that coordinates the department’s mental health response.  In the past, she said, officers were taught, “If you do this, I’m going to do that.” Now they are encouraged to question whether “that” is really necessary.

To check out CIT at work, watch this video about the Memphis Police Department that pioneered CIT.

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