Police Training Improves on Handling the Mentally Ill

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Some 1,324 fatal shootings by police over the past six years involved someone police said was in a mental health crisis, a quarter of fatal police shootings. Although the number of these fatalities has declined, such confrontations remain a deadly and vexing issue, especially in small and midsize metropolitan areas, the Washington Post reports. Fatal police shootings of mentally ill people are more likely to take place in areas with populations of under one million. The issue arose at a town hall meeting last week when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said it was “really, really important” that psychologists and social workers join police on calls involving mentally ill people “to de-escalate the circumstance, to deal with talking them down.” The day before, the Los Angeles City Council created an unarmed crisis response team to handle nonviolent calls, including those prompted by mental health, substance abuse and suicide threats.

For police, encounters with mentally ill people can be challenging because their behavior is often frantic and unpredictable. They can be in a state of psychosis, making it impossible for them to follow police commands. The encounters also can be dangerous because in most cases the mentally ill person is armed with a gun or knife. Larger police departments have moved more quickly to embrace training in de-escalation skills. So far this year, nearly 20 percent of fatal shootings involve someone with mental health problems. Barry Spodak, who trains officers to de-escalate encounters with the mentally ill, said they have become more receptive to the training. “Early on officers said, ‘You are trying to turn me into a social worker,’ ” Spodak said. “That has changed. They see these skills as important tools they need. Still, it runs counter to their nature, which is to quickly move in and take action.”

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