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

A more thorough review could have made a difference in the case of Katherine Paulson, 39.  Paulson was shot to death by police in her mother’s Kennebunkport home in March 2011 after grabbing a kitchen knife and advancing towards the officer.  Paulson, who was adopted and of Alaskan Eskimo heritage, had a history of mental illness and stopped taking her medication.  Her mother called the police to have her voluntarily committed, so that she would take her medication.  In the report justifying the officer’s actions, the Attorney General said, “Ms. Paulson’s state of mind, her motivation, or the medical or psychological foundation of her behavior and actions the evening of March 27, 2011 is beyond the scope of this report and beyond the authority and expertise of this office.”

In an administrative review, authorities investigating the shooting determined that while the officer had no other choice given Paulson’s close proximity, prior knowledge of Paulson’s mental illness by the police could have yielded a different outcome.

Similarly, in January 2011 Andrew Landry, 22, was fatally shot at point blank range by a sheriff’s deputy after charging at police with a knife at his aunt’s house in Lyman, Maine.  His grandmother had called the police reporting Landry had been acting oddly.  Landry had told relatives that if he had stabbed his cousin she wouldn’t bleed because she was a robot, and bad things were coming through electrical appliances in the house.  Although the report from the Attorney General concluded the deputy had no choice but to fatally shoot Landry given the imminent threat he posed, his relatives now believe the police aggravated matters by charging into the house and provoking him.

Last year, out of 9 police shootings in Maine, 6 were fatalities, including 5 mentally ill people and one who was drunk.

The statistics coming from Maine pose a challenge to the criminal justice system to assess its handling of the mentally ill.  A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of county jail inmates have mental health issues.  In the U.S., there are more mentally ill behind bars than in hospitals or treatment centers, as the mentally ill are three times more likely to be imprisoned than hospitalized.  The problem began with the closing of government-run hospitals beginning in the 1980s, leaving few options for those living with mental illness.

Given the cuts to metal health services, the return of traumatized veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the widespread abuse of prescription drugs, the problem of police shootings of the mentally ill will only worsen, the Press Herald study warns.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove