Body Worn Video Steering Group
Very few lines of work require an individual to act as counsellor, treatment coordinator, and law enforcer. Police officers across the world often have to encompass all these responsibilities when responding to a call where a suspect is believed to be mentally ill.
Recently, several officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) were placed under investigation after the shooting of an unstable homeless person with a history of mental health issues, caught on camera by a member of public and body camera worn by one of the officers.
Additionally, the release of footage taken from a body worn video camera depicting the shooting of schizophrenic/bipolar 38 year old Jason Harrison also raises the question: are the police equipped with the knowledge to deal with mentally ill suspects?
Often, where mental health is apparent violence is never too far. However this does not mean to say those suffering psychological illness are more likely to enact violence, nor does it mean police officers only know how to respond with force.
Instead, as body worn video cameras take precedence on the frontline it is becoming clear that the devices are revealing the struggle law enforcement officers have to face when dealing in potentially volatile situations, where mental health plays a factor.
This raises questions surrounding how officers can better deal in responses to calls where a person is believed to be mentally ill, made much harder where it is unknown.
“We have to get out in front, because we’re both wasting money and we’re not getting them any better,” says John Snook, deputy executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia. “And it’s unfair to law enforcement to say, ‘You have to handle this crisis,’ when we won’t get out in the front end.”
Lt. Robert Henry, commander of the Harris County sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Response Team (CIRT), says authorities are under resourced to deal with large volumes of calls where mental health issues are at play.
“How contemporary police organizations deal with people who are in a mental crisis is the next most important sociological challenge that we’re going to face,” he said.
In the county two-person teams made up of a sheriff’s deputy and a licensed mental health counsellor respond to calls involving people believed to be mentally ill. The teams can assess whether a suspect should face criminal charges, appear before a mental health court, be hospitalised, or receive other care.
It is not known exactly how many people are shot by police each year in the US (or globally), and how many of those people struggle with mental health issues is not clear. The FBI, Department of Justice, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all keep numbers on police shootings, but those figures are based largely on self-reporting and differ wildly from one another.
A Wall Street Journal investigation of 105 police departments found 550 unreported killings between 2007 and 2012, suggesting that there may be significantly more police killings than official numbers suggest.
People with mental health conditions are frequent crime victims, and may be at higher risk to be killed by police. An investigation by The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, for example, found that 42% of Maine police shooting victims had mental health issues. Fifty-eight percent of those who died from their injuries faced mental health challenges.
It is fair to assert there is a real problem faced by police, made harder with a duty of care to a suspect whom may suffer mental health issues. Whether or not current high profile fatalities are found to be justified or not, body worn video cameras have illustrated that notion that there is a problem.
In Florida, proposed Senate Bill 248 would exempt from disclosure all recordings taken inside homes; facilities that offer health care, mental health care or social services; the scene of a medical emergency; or any other place where a person “has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Although this has benefits in some senses, the tolerance of the public to trust the best interests of an individual to the police must come with coherent oversight and regulation by the necessary bodies if it were to go forward. Opposition rejects the legislation, contending that this will not be effective for creating/restoring trust and transparency between police and the community.
In the UK police can use section 136 of the Mental Health Act in order to establish the safety and well-being of an individual.
Largely this relies on officer understanding, and does not provide detail on armed responses, however as a preventative measure can be extremely effective for harm reduction to oneself, member of the public, and officers alike. This involves removing an individual from a public place where they are a threat to themselves or others, and placing them in a Place of Safety, which could be a hospital or police station.
This leaves much work to be done at levels and institutions beyond the ranks of the police to provide better prevention, care, and training to improve the current situation.
Although the issue is unlikely to ever be eradicated entirely, the safety of mentally ill individuals and the wider community is as much priority as the responsibility for officers to return home to loved-ones at the end of each shift.