When Police Are Mental Health Providers
(April 24, 2014) My son ended up dead because a police officer wasn’t trained to handle a person with mental illness, Mary Wilsey told Al Jazeera America about the death of her son last January (“How lack of police training can be deadly for the mentally ill,” April 23).
Wilsey’s son, Keith, was 18-years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had a long history of trying to hurt himself, but Wilsey says every morning he would ask her if she wanted a cup of hot chocolate and at night he would tell her he loved her.
Sometimes, with the help of local police, Wilsey was able to have him involuntarily committed for treatment at a psychiatric hospital. That was why she called the police on the night of her son’s death, she said.
The first two police responders were able to speak calmly to Keith, despite his psychotic state, Wilsey told Al Jazeera. “Then a third officer showed up and escalated the situation . . . Then I heard the gun go off and saw my son start bleeding.”
Keith died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Stories with similarly tragic endings were the subject of our recent report, “Justifiable Homicides by Law Enforcement Officers: What is the Role of Mental Illness?,” in which the authors found that the responsibility of law enforcement officers for seriously mentally ill persons has increased sharply in recent years and is continuing to increase.
Many of these officers are ill equipped to handle such confrontations, and as a result, untreated mental illness is an increasing factor in officer-involved homicides.
Wilsey is now an advocate of crisis intervention team (CIT) policing, which consists of specially training officers who respond to calls involving mental illness.
“Train them so they can handle the population that they deal with every day,” Wilsey said. “My goal is to prevent another family from going through a terrible tragedy that has ruined our lives.”
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