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The hidden victims: Missing data and insufficient police training for people with mental illness

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Police brutality has been in the minds of countless Americans daily with the uproar of the BLM movement and the recognition of the dangers underprivileged persons face at the hand of police. For citizens who have a mental illness, these interactions with police can turn deadly fast. The Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI's Uniformed Crime Reporting Program have conducted analyses to uncover the number of law enforcement homicides. With these government organizations still collecting this data, 28% of homicides were not collected by either system (Saleh). This calls for a deeper look at the number of deadly police interactions that persons with mental illness encounter.

To help tackle this systematic issue authors Saleh and Appelbaum (2018) in Deaths of people with mental illness during interactions with law enforcement break down data gathered by two news organizations-- The Post and The Guardian-- that tracked fatal civilian-police interactions. While the Uniformed Crime Reporting Programs and the Bureau of Justice Statistics can cover a wealth of ground, they only reported 46% of law enforcement homicides. The Post and The Guardian were both able to track deaths at law enforcement hands respectively in two different fashions. They tracked based on who had died as a result of police interactions, and the authors then went with a mix of the two lists for a combined list of 1,099 cases. They coded these cases for mental illness present at the contact with law enforcement.

This study shows an overwhelming number of persons with mental illness (MI) are killed at the hands of the police. Their data showed that having a MI increased the likelihood of being killed sevenfold compared to persons without MI. They gathered factors such as gender, race, age, poverty level, location of death, recent drug or alcohol use, and where they lived. This was the case for African Americans as well. Taking a look at the locations where these people were killed was also very interesting. Persons with MI were 2.8 times more likely to be killed in a home or non-public locations, whereas 68% of persons killed without MI were more likely to be killed in public. Their data showed that most of these persons with MI were less likely to be armed compared to persons without MI.

However, looking at the legitimacy of the data, some possible flaws exist. Since not even half of law enforcement homicides are documented by federal agencies, the researchers had to rely on the local media outlets and research. This shows that there could either be an overreporting or an underreporting of mental illness, drug use, weapons, and other factors that play a role in the homicide.

Overall, this article sheds bright light on the sheer amount of people with MI are killed at the hands of law enforcement. Importantly, it starts conversations on how to properly train officers and first responders on de-escalation training for persons with severe mental health disorders. The amount of force used with people diagnosed with schizophrenia, psychosis, or an Autism Spectrum Disorder does nothing but escalates the person's behaviors. If officers understood the situation at hand and worked alongside mental health professionals to de-escalate these situations, deaths like these do not have to occur. Another aspect could be taking a look inside why only 46% of all police homicides are documents and what happens with the other 54%. These numbers highlight the bias that is living within the police force and hides the number of people that have been killed. Education is one of the best ways to enact change and improve the statistics.

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