Michael Mahoney, 36, had a hard life, spending months in juvenile detention centers and six years in prison before deciding to turn things around. He enrolled in welding courses and cared for his ailing father in their Oxnard, Calif., home. Then his schizophrenia took over. He lived his last months in fear and paranoia, once screaming out, “Kill me!”
Then someone did.
Mahoney died Aug. 14 of a gunshot wound to the chest after three officers, responding to a report of a man with a weapon, fired on him. He was one of 64 mentally ill people who died after being shot with a gun or electroshock device by U.S. law enforcement this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s about three times the number police indicated in a 2009 Department of Justice survey, the last year for which statistics are available.
At least 16 of the 64 had schizophrenia, were prone to violence and avoided taking medications. Some had been released from hospitals after stays families thought were too brief to be therapeutic. Mahoney spent 45 hours in a psychiatric center where he’d been confined for his own safety, discharged nine days before he died with a flare gun in his hand.
“It is a shame that a bullet is what our mental health safety net has become,” said Louis Josephson, chief executive officer of Riverbend Community Mental Health Inc. in Concord, N.H., which offers outpatient and residential programs.
The failures of the U.S. health care system in treating the seriously mentally ill have swelled the workload of police in all 50 states and put the emotionally disturbed at the mercy of officers who may have little or no training in defusing situations fueled by psychosis.
‘Society’s going downhill’
While no diagnosis has been made public, the emotional state of Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has focused attention on the role of mental health in violence. At a news conference Dec. 18, President Barack Obama vowed to make treatment for mental illness as easy to obtain as a gun. Lanza’s main weapon was a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle.
“Clearly, he was troubled,” Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy said in an interview with CNN. “You have to be deranged to carry out this kind of crime.”
In a 2011 survey, 82 percent of 2,400 police chiefs and sheriffs said calls to deal with the mentally ill had increased substantially over their time in office, according to Michael Biasotti, president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the department in New Windsor.
Now the use of force against the mentally ill is a major focus of Department of Justice investigations, according to Jonathan Smith, head of the agency’s civil rights special litigation section. “You’ve got your finger on what is among the largest issues in law enforcement,” he said.
Smith tied the shootings, in part, to the diminishment of U.S. health care for the mentally ill. The number of beds in state hospitals has plummeted 92 percent to 42,385 in 2011 from the mid-1950s. Laws in 44 states designed to force the most seriously ill to stay on their medication are often underused or ignored, according to Brian Stettin of the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center.
The average duration of acute-care psychiatric hospital stays has dropped 60 percent since 1993, and is now at 7.8 days – far from the two weeks doctors say is the minimum for introducing new drug therapies and stabilizing patients.
Mahoney’s family is convinced the brevity of his last hospitalization left him agitated and delusional, and led to the episode that ended his life. “My brother didn’t have to die,” said his twin sister, Tara.
She and her brother, Brian, and their father said they are also angry at the police. “The society’s going downhill when the cops can just shoot anybody they want,” Brian said.
Oxnard Police Commander Scott Hebert rejected the suggestion of improper behavior. “We never want to put our officers in a spot where they have to do what they did,” he said. “The story, in my opinion, is the mental health system.”
Dealing with mental illness
None of the officers in the 64 incidents Bloomberg documented has been found criminally liable.
Last year, the Justice Department conducted its first investigation based solely on violent police encounters with the mentally ill, in Portland, Ore. The agency found a “pattern or practice of unreasonable force” in nine cases, and gaps in mental health care that increased the frequency of potentially fatal police encounters.
In a proposed settlement with the federal agency, Portland agreed to hire additional staff to train officers and work with mental-health groups in the city, among other steps. The cost in the first year is estimated at $5.8 million.
The Justice Department ordered New Orleans police in 2011 and Seattle police in 2012 to take similar actions after wide- ranging probes of their departments. How officers deal with the mentally ill will be a necessary component of all future police investigations, Smith said.
In 49 of the 64 incidents in Bloomberg’s count, individuals were armed or appeared to be. Twenty-one had knives and 19 had guns. There were two with hammers, two with machetes, one holding a bat and another a sword. Three carried toy guns.
In Saginaw, Mich., on July 1, it was a folding knife. Milton Hall, a 49-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia, was shot 46 times after six officers responded to a call that he’d left a convenience store without paying for a cup of coffee, according to the attorney for his estate, Debra Freid. Hall had “acted aggressively,” brandishing the knife, according to police.
Some of the 64 did serious harm to others. Pralith Pralourng, 32, had taken nothing for his schizophrenia for more than a year in July when he injured a coworker with a box-cutter at a San Francisco chocolate factory. Police shot and killed Pralourng when he turned the box-cutter on them.
In August, Charlene Fears, 38, released recently from a hospital, fatally stabbed her four-year-old grandson at her home in Buffalo. Covered in blood and wielding two butcher knives, Fears, one of six women in Bloomberg’s survey, charged at officers trying to help the boy and was shot and killed.
A preponderance of those in uniform have no idea how to deal with mental illness, and “man, are they quick to shoot,” said Michael Woody, president of CIT International, a Memphis-based nonprofit that organizes programs in 50 states and four countries in crisis intervention training, or CIT.
Only 10 percent of the nation’s 25,000 police departments offer CIT or teach de-escalation techniques to deal with the mentally ill in crises, psychotic or otherwise, according to a University of Memphis study.
In CIT sessions, officers learn to engage in what’s called reflective listening: “So, I hear you saying. . . “ The next step is to have a disturbed individual sit, as officers maintain eye contact and, finally, to convince the person to come along peaceably, said Woody, a retired 25-year veteran of the Akron, Ohio, police department.
Tony Monheim, a retired Miami-Dade police officer who teaches courses in officer-involved shootings and homicide investigations, said training can only go so far.
“It’s perfectly clear to me that someone who attacks a police officer with a piece of a plate-glass window is not thinking clearly,” Monheim said. “But what is a cop supposed to do? Put them on a couch? Analyze them? There’s just no time for that.”
A look at the data
In 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics decided to try to include data on encounters with the mentally ill in its annual arrest-related deaths report, according to Howard Snyder, the bureau’s deputy director.
It added a new question to a survey that police departments fill out in every case of a death during an arrest or confrontation: “At any time during the arrest/incident, did the deceased exhibit any mental health problems?”
In all but rare instances, “nobody would check that box,” said Andrea Burch, a statistician who directs the annual report.
The question was just too difficult to answer correctly, or honestly. “If someone is running down the street, naked, screaming they’re God,” she said, does an officer have any way of knowing whether the person is mentally ill or drunk or on drugs? So the question would often go unanswered, she said.
In 2009, the only year for which survey results were made available to Bloomberg, 3 percent of the 729 questionnaires showed the box for that question checked, Burch said, for a rough estimate of 22 arrest-related deaths identified as involving someone with a mental illness or mental health issues.
The bureau never made the results public and next year will stop asking the question because the data it yielded was too sketchy, Snyder, the deputy director, said.
For its survey, Bloomberg gathered more than 100 news articles about police shootings involving the mentally ill in 2012. After checking with police, district attorneys and medical records, only those incidents in which mental illness could be confirmed were counted. The discarded reports show the actual number of such shootings could be much larger.
By his calculation, based on conversations with police officers, Woody of CIT International said he believes 25 percent of the 400 or so fatal shootings captured annually in Justice Department statistics involve someone with a mental illness or mental health issues.