The Houston Police Department began training officers five years ago on how to deal with people in mental crisis, but such interactions continue to end violently, with an officer shooting someone with mental problems, reports the Houston Chronicle.
Houston officers have shot at least nine people with known mental illness in the past five years, seven fatally. In at least six other shootings, the victim’s behavior suggests a possible mental episode. Four of the shootings were fatal.
The training has led to significant improvements. Almost 25 percent of Houston officers are on the Crisis Intervention Team, about the recommended average, and officers have taken an increasing number of people to the hospital for psychiatric help instead of jail.
The Chronicle says these efforts are harmed by shortcomings like the failure to deploy crisis-trained officers when they are most needed. On average, the Crisis Intervention Team responded to fewer than 27 percent of the calls received in the last six months of 2003. 911 dispatchers often fail to identify calls about people experiencing mental problems, assigning untrained officers to handle crucial first interactions with them. Officers complain that the department has not provided adequate access to nonlethal weapons.
“You have to understand that it is very difficult for police officers to assess whether they are dealing with a mentally ill person instantaneously, because there are doctors who take hours to come up with a diagnosis,” said David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor and expert on police shootings. “The sorts of behaviors that could be indicative of mental impairment could also be signs of a lot of things that could make a person dangerous.”