Dumping America’s Mental-Health Woes on the Cops

The latest police shooting to roil Chicago was all too familiar — and not because it fits the poisonous narrative of rampant police racism alleged by Black Lives Matter.

Quintonio LeGrier’s father called police after locking himself in a bedroom when his son menaced him with a baseball bat. When the police arrived, LaGrier, a 19-year-old with emotional problems, allegedly charged them with the bat. An officer shot him dead, and accidentally killed a neighbor as well.

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The heart-rending case is, tragically, almost routine. Consider two other recent cases. On Dec. 29, Siolosega Velega-Nuufolau of Santa Nella, California, a 50-year-old woman with mental problems, was shot dead when allegedly charging a sheriff’s deputy with a kitchen knife. On Dec. 19, police killed Ruben Jose Herrera, a 26-year-old Los Angeles-area man suffering from bipolar disorder, when he allegedly lunged for an officer’s gun in the hospital.

For all the attention devoted to police-involved shootings and race, mental illness is the more salient issue. A joint report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association in 2013 examined cases between 1980 and 2008, and estimated that roughly half involved people with mental illness. A Washington Post analysis of 1,000 fatal police shootings in 2015 puts it at about a quarter.

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These shootings are another tragic symptom of our contemptible outsourcing of the severely mental ill to law enforcement. The police are our de facto front-line mental-health workers — “armed social workers” in the pungent phrase of one observer — and jails are our de facto psychiatric hospital system.

In its analysis of 2015 police shootings, the Post found dozens of cases where the police were called as a means of getting treatment. Shirley Marshall Harrison called the Dallas police when her schizophrenic, bipolar son was out of control. He was shot down while allegedly charging police with a screwdriver. “I didn’t call for them to take him to the morgue,” she said of the cops. “I called for medical help.”

 

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