Police departments and policymakers are grappling with how to bolster training for cops on mental health issues in the midst of a string of high-profile fatal incidents involving suspects believed to be in the throes of mental breakdowns. The debate on policing has largely focused on whether inherent racial bias has led to police disproportionately using deadly force against African Americans. Long simmering on the back burner is the struggle of police departments to deal with the eye-popping number of deadly incidents that involve people with mental health issues, reports USA Today The Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center says people with mental illness are 16 times more likely than others to be killed by police, while the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 15 percent of men and 30 percent women annually booked at U.S. jails have mental health problems. “What [police] departments are going through right now is nothing short of a cultural revolution,” said criminologist Peter Scharf of the LSU School of Public Health and Justice. “Jails have become the alms house of this generation and police have become the first responders to the mentally ill.”
The issue of mental illness and policing was drawn back into the spotlight after police in El Cajon, Ca., last week fatally shot Alfred Olango, 38, an unarmed man who was killed after his sister says she called for help because he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Police departments had been looking for ways to reduce the number of instances in which force is deployed and diverting the number of mentally ill people from the expensive proposition of incarceration. In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges has announced plans for a pilot program that would pair mental health professionals with streets cops responding to emergencies. The Chicago Police Department this month launched a new mandatory de-escalation training program for the nation’s second-largest police force that has a heavy focus on mental health training.