Why ‘Terrible’ Police Training on Mental Health Leads to Unnecessary Deaths

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The March 30 2017 New York Police Academy graduating class. Photo by NYC Mayoral Photography Office

The scenario leading up to the Oct. 28 fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., an individual diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has been repeated around this country for years.

An acutely mentally ill individual has a knife, officers tell him to drop it, he doesn’t, and he is shot and killed. It happens far more frequently than any other police fatal-shooting situation.

Setting aside the question of mental health treatment in the community, most of the shooting deaths of individuals suffering from mental health problems are unnecessary and should have been prevented.

I said “most” rather than “all” purposefully. If, instead of holding a knife, a person raises a gun toward the police, or runs toward the officers holding a butcher knife overhead, the shooting is justified and may have been unavoidable. These situations, however, are the exceptions.

The Philadelphia scenario, which led to the death of the 27-year-old Wallace, is far more common. Why do police so often resort to lethal force in such situations, and why are they so seldom held accountable?

A major reason: terrible police training on this issue.

Here is the kind of message typically given to young officers in training (my phrasing—not from any official training manual):

At a distance of 25 feet, a person with an edged weapon (knife or similar) can charge you and, even though you are able to hit him with one or two fatal shots, he will still be able to reach you and perhaps kill you. You must consider any person within 25 feet of you with an edged weapon as constituting an imminent threat of loss of life justifying the use of lethal force. 

That sort of message, reinforced by in-service training, portrays a scenario that—while conceivable—has no relation to reality.

Let’s look at reality. Adding figures provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report between 2008 and 2017 and for 2018, in the 11 years prior to 2019, there were a total of 1,671 law enforcement on-duty deaths.

Stabbing deaths involving mentally ill individuals? Zero!

To be clear, in the last 11 years, there were no police deaths from edged weapons in standoffs with mentally ill individuals.

These data suggest that most police tactics and interactions with armed individuals who are mentally ill make no sense.

Any police department can dramatically reduce the chances of fatalities in encounters with mentally troubled individuals. First, all police should receive serious and thoughtful training on this topic. Policy should require de-escalation techniques and other crisis intervention procedures, time and circumstances allowing, and hold officers accountable when those methods could have been used and were not.

Second, departments should require officers to use intermediate-force options rather than lethal force where possible. The larger dispensers of pepper spray are often effective up to twenty-five feet. Tasers are controversial but, if the alternative is firearms, a taser is clearly preferable.

The pepper-ball system, which shoots plastic projectiles the size of a small marble, is a third alternative. Another possibility is a “launcher” which fires projectiles containing small bean bags that can knock someone down or hard rubber or wood pellets fired into the ground and ricocheted, taking a person down.

Washington Post data from 2015-2019, show 1,216 mentally ill people shot and killed by police, or a current average of four or five such fatalities per week. Generally, intermediate force options have not been used.

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz

The most obvious alternative to sending police to respond to a call about a mentally ill person, is to send trained civilians, perhaps some combination of social workers, psychologists, medics or other crisis workers, or a police-civilian combination.

Some of these alternatives have demonstrated dramatic reductions in injuries and deaths of the mentally ill, without any associated injury rate for the responders.

Individuals cannot choose to stop being mentally ill, but we can choose to stop killing them.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Mercury News (San Jose) and is reprinted with permission. Psychologist Jeffrey A. Schwartz, Ph.D., has worked with police and correctional agencies across the United States and Canada for more than 40 years, specializing in crisis intervention training and use-of-force issues. He can be reached at jasletra@aol.com.

2 thoughts on “Why ‘Terrible’ Police Training on Mental Health Leads to Unnecessary Deaths

  1. Thank you for publishing Dr. Schwartz’ very thoughtful piece. He has done tremendous work in California and elsewhere, and made a real difference.

    Fred Keeley
    Former Assembly Speaker Pro Tem
    California Assembly

  2. Dr. Schwartz:
    Do you have the breakdown of the data that illustrates all the intermediate force options used? Do you know how many of the 1216 incidents could have resulted in injury or death if the officer didn’t shoot the person with a knife?

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