Study: Half of people shot by police every year are mentally ill

A new study in a Maine newspaper sheds light on a national problem of police and the fatal shooting of the mentally ill.  And the findings are eye-opening.

According to the four-part series in the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, when police shoot to kill in high pressure situations, very often the targets of deadly force are the mentally ill.

And in the worst crises, law enforcement is unprepared to deal with people with mental health challenges.  Proper training and the use of alternate tactics could prevent these tragedies and save lives in the process.

Nationwide, roughly half of the 357 to 500 people shot to death by police officers are mentally ill. Often, the officers were aware of the subject’s instability.

In Maine— where five fatal police shootings of the mentally ill last year led to this recent study—42 percent of people shot by police were mentally ill, including 58 percent of those who died from their injuries.

Most of the state’s 3,500 officers lacked the training to avert these fatal outcomes, with only 14 of 200 state troopers receiving crisis intervention training to avoid deadly conflicts.  Further, the state Attorney General’s office, which investigates all police shootings, has ruled each of these shootings—51 deaths out of 101 shootings since 1990—was justified.

The office determines whether a shooting is justified by asking whether the officer reasonably believed deadly force would be used against him or someone else, and whether the officer reasonably believed deadly force was required to prevent it.

However, the review does not consider whether the use of deadly force could have been avoided, civil liability, or whether administrative action is warranted.

Meanwhile, the Maine Legislature established a new system in 2009 to review police shootings.  When reviewing shootings by their departments, law enforcement must consider the facts of an incident; whether the relevant policy was clear and effective to cover the given situation; whether improvements are necessary to increase public or officer safety; whether training should be reviewed or revised, and whether equipment or other resources should be revised.  Additionally, the team reviewing the incident should follow any contractual provisions regarding the police officers’ rights.

But three years and twenty shootings later, neither police agencies nor lawmakers have bothered to read the findings.