Cops don’t know how to deal with mental illness, and it’s a huge problem

Half of all Americans killed by police every year are mentally ill

Topics: Police, Mental Illness, Ferguson, kajieme powell, , , ,

Cops don't know how to deal with mental illness, and it's a huge problemPolice officers stand near a crowd that is gathering by the scene where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis on Aug. 9, 2014. (Credit: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)

In 2011, police officers Brian Kaminski and Michael White responded to a 911 call at North Marguerite Avenue and Airport Road in Ferguson, Missouri, only to find Jason Moore, a naked, unarmed 31-year-old man, wandering out from behind a building. According to a lawsuit filed by Moore’s wife, Tina, on Sept. 17, 2011, Moore was “suffering from a psychological disorder and demonstrated clear signs of mental illness.” Onlookers reportedly heard Moore yelling “glory to God,” and “I’m Jesus.”

Kaminski instructed the delirious Moore to put his hands in the air and walk toward him, and when the man complied, Kaminski fired his Taser and shocked Moore with three five-second bursts, allegedly because Moore refused to stay on the ground.

When White was finally able to handcuff Moore during the third shock, he stopped breathing. White’s attempts to revive Moore with chest compressions were useless — Moore had died of a heart attack.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the resulting lawsuit alleges that police officers had not received adequate training in how to identify mental illness, that the officers used the Taser even though Moore posed no immediate threat, and that police are trained to use the same methods with suspected criminals and the mentally ill. Additionally, the suit claims that Ferguson police officers “conspire with one another to cover for and protect one another from criminal and/or civil sanctions that might arise from the violation of the constitutional rights of a citizen.”

That police fail to discriminate between violent criminals and the mentally ill is made all the more relevant thanks to the recent shooting of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. The death is largely considered to be an instance of suicide-by-cop, with Powell allegedly wielding a knife and yelling, “Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me now, motherfucker!” until the police gun him down. Powell had been described by neighbors as mentally ill.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Lamont Hill spoke to the stigma of mental illness, particularly for young men of color:

“As a nation, we don’t talk about mental health. We mock people for going to see therapists. We call people crazy. When you look at even pop culture with the haunted house with the psychos inside, there’s this whole culture that stigmatizes mental illness. I think also with young black men because they’re seen as being prone to violence, prone to irrationality, because they’re seen as unintelligent and often immoral, when they display behaviors that are clearly crying for help we dismiss it as part of their normal every day pathology.”

The stigmatization and lack of information surrounding mental illness directly affects the criminal justice system, resulting in inadequate treatment, inappropriate prison time and numerous deaths at the hands of police. Prisons are home to 10 times more mentally ill Americans than state psychiatric hospitals. The Los Angeles County Jail is the largest provider of mental healthcare in the country. Appallingly, 50 percent of Americans killed by the police every year are mentally ill, and this largely has to do with police training.

Al Jazeera’s Aaron Ernst and Christof Putzel report:

“Traditional law enforcement tactics are rooted in logic, in reasoning — and in issuing commands for someone to comply so that we can make the situation safe right now by taking a person into custody,” said Douglas County Police Capt. Attila Denes, who has spent much of his career in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado trying to improve police interaction with the mentally ill. “But barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn’t work.”

That means that real change will have to begin with police training. One example of a successful program is crisis intervention team training, or CIT, in which officers are taught how to identify and work with the mentally ill. According to Al Jazeera, half of Colorado’s police officers are trained in the approach, which involves role-playing various scenarios and learning how to react in productive, nonviolent ways. Data shows that the program results in fewer deployed SWAT teams and saved money because mentally ill people avoid prison time. Throughout the country, officers trained in CIT are injured 80 percent less often than untrained officers when dealing with the mentally ill.

But only 10 percent of 25,000 police departments in the country require that kind of training. St. Louis County Police Department offers 40-hour crisis intervention training, which Ferguson Police are permitted to participate in, but the most recent available information indicates that they had not done so.

Joanna Rothkopf

Joanna Rothkopf is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on science, health and society. Follow @JoannaRothkopf or email

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...