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Intersection of Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Makes News With Increasing Frequency

During the same week in early April, 2014, the New York Times published two seemingly unrelated stories highlighting the increasing contacts that law enforcement personnel have with mentally ill individuals, and the problems that result from these encounters.  The fact that one of the Nation’s largest newspapers ran both of these stories within a relatively brief period of time suggests strongly that issues surrounding mentally ill criminal defendants are not being addressed adequately, and require more appropriate attention.

One story discussed James Boyd, who was homeless and camping in the Sandia Foothills near Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Boyd was not allowed to camp there, and police moved in to arrest him.  He had a history of mental illness, and told the officers that they better not try to arrest him because he was a federal agent.  The officers subsequently shot and killed him, saying later that he displayed two knives and threatened them.  The entire episode was captured on video taken by an officer’s helmet camera that was later released by the Albuquerque Police Department, and is available on Youtube.

Boyd, like so many others, are having more frequent encounters with the criminal justice system because of a lack of adequate mental health services.  State and local governments are slashing these services because of funding issues, with the result that the lack of available treatment is causing the mentally ill to engage increasingly in criminal conduct.  This, in turn, is forcing police to attempt to function as mental health professionals, and turning County jails and State prisons into mental hospitals.  Many of these defendants are arrested, sent to jail, then to a halfway house, and then back onto the street – only to repeat the cycle over and over again.

The Boyd story highlighted many of the problems with encounters between the police and the mentally ill:

1.  Many police departments now train police officers to deal with mentally ill individuals.  This training is designed to teach officers how to diffuse volatile situations and treat the mentally ill with respect.  However, experience has shown that officers can sometimes worsen a situation, either out of fear or in an effort to exert control.

2.  It is believed that half the people shot and killed by the police have mental health problems.

3.  Some, but not all, departments pair officers with mental health workers.  Officers in departments that do not have such pairing may receive relatively minimal training in dealing with the mentally ill, but it is not nearly enough to qualify them as experts in this area.  Further, regardless of how much training they may receive, the reality of the actual encounter is usually far more complicated than anything they were ostensibly prepared for.

4.  The National Institute of Mental Health reports that six percent of the population, or one in 17 Americans, has a serious mental illness.  It is believed that the mentally ill are involved in only about four percent of violent crime; however, untreated severe mental illness is generally associated with higher rates of violence.

The other Times story discussed Jerome Murdough, a Rikers Island inmate who was left unattended and died in an overheated cell.  Surprisingly (or not), the cell was located within the Rikers mental health unit.  It was later learned that Murdough died because the staff in the mental health unit failed to follow appropriate procedures.

The article notes that mentally ill inmates at Rikers are frequently neglected and abused.  Rikers corrections officers struggle to deal with mentally ill defendants, which comprise approximately 40 percent of the inmate population.  The officers assigned there have been known to respond “aggressively and indifferently” to these inmates.  Additionally, in an interview done for the article, the President of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association said that his officers required more mental health training.  (“Correction officers are not psychologists, psychiatrists or doctors to be able to prescribe or be able to identify those individuals that have serious issues.”)

The point of these articles is abundantly clear.  The primary task of the police is law enforcement.  They are not equipped to address mental health issues, and the relatively minimal training that some officers receive is insufficient for this task.  Further, the current model is actually causing the mentally ill to enter the criminal justice system with increased frequency.  We can reduce the number of mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system only when we start funding mental health services at a more appropriate level, as opposed to shunting this task off to the police, and State and County corrections departments who either cannot, or do not want to, do the job.