El Cajon Case May Show Flaws in Policing the Mentally Ill

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Tuesday’s story out of El Cajon, Ca., a San Diego suburb, had an eerie familiarity: Police respond to a person exhibiting disturbing behavior, but the subject, lost in his own, altered world, does not comply with the usual commands, does not heed warnings, acts in a way that seems to invite danger, and ends up dead. An officer fatally shot Alfred Olango after his sister called 911 for help because he was acting erratically. “I called for help; I didn’t call you guys to kill him,” the sister wailed on a Facebook video recorded by a bystander. The police use of force — sometimes lethal — against those with diminished mental capacity is distressingly common, the New York Times reports. Experts and advocates say that while training and practices have improved, officers in many agencies still receive little or no education in how to recognize and deal with people who may not behave rationally.


“There are hundreds of thousands of times when officers are helpful, but far too often, people in crisis end up being Tasered, beaten, arrested and even shot, and a lot of families are very scared to call the police, knowing something like that can happen,” said Laura Usher of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Law enforcement training teaches officers to be forceful, to take charge of a situation and to physically control anyone who might be a danger. In the last two decades, there has been a growing trend to teach officers to de-escalate tensions, particularly with troubled people. The tactics can involve the officer keeping a distance, coaxing rather than commanding, and maintaining a quiet, conversational tone of voice. “Yelling commands at someone who’s agitated and maybe delusional is not going to help,” said James Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation and a former police chief in Redlands, Ca.

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