The last tweet Anthony Hill sent read, “Never say never.” Two hours later, around 2 p.m. on March 9, he was shot dead. Reports and video footage, captured moments before his death, spotlight Hill’s erratic behavior: the 26-year-old Air Force veteran had been wandering The Heights apartment complex naked, crawling on the ground, knocking on doors, and hanging from a balcony. When approached by Dekalb County police officer Robert Olsen, Hill charged the officer despite Olsen’s pleas for him to stop. Though Olsen, who is a seven-year veteran of the police force, was equipped with a taser, he fatally shot an unarmed Hill twice.
Hill, it was later revealed, battled with bipolar disorder. Bridget Anderson, Hill’s longtime girlfriend, said he’d been medically discharged from the Air Force some years back. Anderson told the Associated Press that Hill, who saw himself as mixed-raced, was “being treated by a VA doctor for bipolar disorder but stopped taking his medication a week or two ago because he didn’t like the side effects.”
Three days before, on March 6, Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old in Madison, Wisconsin, was also gunned down by police. When officer Matt Kenny arrived at 1125 Williamson Street—the police dispatch recording claimed Robinson was “outside yelling and jumping in front of cars” and that “Tony hit one of his friends”—a scuffle ensued between the two, and Kenny, perhaps feeling threatened, shot Robinson. He died that evening at the hospital.
“There’s no doubt that we have to be clear about this: [Robinson] was unarmed,” Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said to reporters during a press briefing the next day. “That’s going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept.”
Reports later identified Robinson as having battled with attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. And though he was arrested last April in connection to an armed home invasion in Madison, he was typically known as a “friendly, sweet guy” to those who knew him.
The history of how police have handled confrontations with the mentally ill is tangled at best, and the most recent incidents—Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Kristiana Coignard in East Texas, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, as well as Hill and Robinson—have all ended tragically.
Given these recent events, are police, and communities, doing enough to bridle fatal killings of the mentally ill?
Crisis intervention training (CIT), which originated in Memphis in 1988, is required for officers in most states, and the average training runs 40 hours. The program has two basic goals: to improve officer and consumer safety, as well as to redirect mentally ill individuals from the criminal justice system to the health care system.
Before a Senate subcommittee last spring, CIT experts from the National Alliance of Mental Illness pointed out that only 15 percent of police jurisdictions have fully functioning CIT programs. The common misconception is that CIT is based solely on training officers, but that is not true. As Ret. Major Sam Cochran, one of the foremost experts in CIT, told me, programs also require community partnerships and coordination between government systems.
“CIT is more than training” he said. “If you start with only one component in place, it will not be sustainable.”
Cochran stressed the importance of communities needing to evaluate the lack of mental and behavioral health services in their area, and that mental breaks might, too, be rooted in other issues facing communities, like homelessness and job scarcity.
“CIT should not be drafted as a law enforcement program,” Cochran said. “It should be drafted as a community program. It’s an ongoing effort, and we need mechanisms in place that can continually address long-term and short-term issues.”
In December, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announced plans to overhaul the city’s approach to dealing with the mentally ill. There are currently more than 5,000 mentally ill New Yorkers in city jails. And according to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC)—a national nonprofit and mental health advocacy organization—there are roughly 400,000 mentally ill men and women housed in prisons and jails nationwide, and 35,000 in state hospitals.
But what of those who are never afforded the option of arrest, due process and, if convicted, prison or psychiatric care? What about the Anthony Hills, Tony Robinsons, Kristiana Coignards, Dontre Hamiltons, and Ezell Fords of America? In each case, the officer made a judgment call, a life-ending decision that, now, calls into question the training methods of local law enforcement across the country. Are police properly trained to detect and manage supposed offenders and criminals afflicted by bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression?
Between 2012 and 2014, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice found police departments in Portland, Cleveland, and Albuquerque engaged in “unconstitutional uses of force against people in mental health crisis.” The reports, which concluded that these local law agencies were “underdeveloped” in crisis training, noted how officers were not “suited to effectively deal with people with mental illness.”
In an email to Gawker, TAC explained its hope for suppressing state violence against the mentally ill:
The lack of treatment options for people with severe mental illness has meant that members of law enforcement are ending up as frontline mental health workers. When someone in the middle of a psychiatric crisis encounters the police, there can be potentially deadly consequences, especially if the police are not trained. We need to have a better trained police force but fewer than half the U.S. population lives in communities where the most basic methods of diverting people with severe mental illness from the criminal justice system are being used, according to our report.
Mental health courts are one option, they divert qualifying criminal defendants from jail into community-based mental health treatment. Crisis intervention teams are another option and consist of specially trained officers who respond to service calls involving mental illness. Both programs have consistently been found to reduce the arrest and incarceration of individuals with severe mental illness.
Second, we need to enact policies that allow people with the most severe mental illness to receive treatment before a tragedy occurs. The majority of U.S. states are in need of significant improvements to their mental illness treatment laws to protect and provide for individuals in psychiatric crisis. Improvements in this area will decrease tragic encounters between people with severe mental illness and law enforcement.
A 2013 joint report released by TAC and the National Sheriffs’ Association, which assessed data on justifiable homicides between 1980 and 2008, found that “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” It is a staggering statistic, and one, I would wager, most people are unaware of.
Just weeks ago, Zachary Tumin, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of strategic initiatives, tweeted: “People off their meds r losing it & wlking into police bullets.” A social media storm ensued, and Tumin later clarified what he meant. But the damage had already been done. “These situations are fraught with risk for cops and the mentally ill,” he told the Daily News. We train for it. We train hard for it, but the solutions are not simply police—we can’t have cops trying to solve these complex problems. It takes training and it also takes services.”
Here in New York City, de Blasio’s proposal attempts to attack some of these “complex problems” facing officers. According to the mayor’s task force, the city plans to open two “clinical drop-off community centers” that will examine behavioral health and offer short-term care, require all officers to undergo specialized crisis training that helps identify and deal with the mentally ill, and add 2,000 openings citywide to supervised release programs. But will that be enough?
One of the national police models for crisis training and dealing with the mentally ill is in Dallas, Texas. As highlighted by Dana Goldstein for The Marshall Project, officers “participate in 17 typical scenarios in which actors pretend to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. Mentally ill and intellectually disabled members of the community speak with the trainees in small groups, so that officers can get comfortable with a broad range of disabilities.” But the program is not without its challenges. “[C]ops were taught how to use defensive tactics to arrest a robbery or burglary suspect—verbal commands followed by physical force,” program coordinator Herb Cotner told Goldstein. “But how do they recognize when they’re dealing with someone who is not a criminal? That the crisis is being driven by mental illness?”
In Atlanta, where Hill was shot, officers receive four hours of mental health training a month. According to WXIA Atlanta, the officer who shot Hill “received four hours of training on the use of his taser, three hours of crisis intervention skills” and, in 2009, “received 40 hours of training on crisis intervention that focused on dealing with the mentally ill.”
Cochran said that successful programs—like those in Memphis, Virginia, and Florida where the number of people put in jail decreased, and officer injury rate saw a reduction in regard to crisis calls—leverage community partnerships with local and national mental health organizations.
“What about community mental health services that should be open at 10 p.m. or on weekends? Do we have those in place?” Cochran said. “We can do great training, but if we are not addressing the system issues, then we will still be met with challenges.”
Yesterday, graphic footage of a Dallas cop shooting Jason Harrison was made public. In the video, Harrison, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, is seen holding a screwdriver as he exits his home. As Harrison stands in the front door, police approach him, asking the 38-year-old to “drop” the weapon. Harrison, staggering forward, does not drop the screwdriver. The cops fire. Still alive, he falls to the pavement, unable to move.
The cops, with their guns pointed at Harrison, yell, “Drop it!... Drop it! Put it down.” But it is clear that he is unable to move, and the screwdriver wedged in his hand no longer poses a threat to them. “Drop it, guy,” an officer yells again. Harrison would later die.
The family currently has a lawsuit against the city (they believe the officers should have used a less fatal apprehension tactic), and released the video hoping it will prompt discussion surrounding police training and policy reform as it pertains to mentally ill individuals.
“This is a perfect video for the Dallas Police Department to use in training as an example of what not to do,” Harrison’s older brother Sean told the Dallas Morning News. “You don’t yell at them—that only agitates them.”
When I asked Cochran if he thought preventing another Ezell Ford or Anthony Hill incident was a matter of officers being more empathetic towards the afflicted, and if CIT helped with that, he answered bluntly.
“Yes, it does,” he said. “CIT programs aren’t perfect. I know what [officers] are walking away from when they leave the program—great training. But what are they walking into? If training programs and partnerships are fragmented, then we’re just putting people in jail.”
[Image via AP]