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The enforcement problem 

America has to do something about officer-involved shootings that result in death and the number of mentally ill wrapped up in the justice system

The U.S. has the highest number and rate of deaths from police among all developed countries. One-half of those killed by police every year have mental illnesses, according to a report by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center. Those killed are typically poor, mentally ill and/or non-white. Police arrest or kill those who should, instead, be receiving mental health care. Below are a few examples: 

A person with schizophrenia cannot hear police’s orders because of hearing voices. Kelly Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, was clobbered to death in 2011 by Fullerton police because he wouldn’t follow their commands. 

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Jamycheal Mitchell, a young black man, was arrested earlier this year in Virginia for stealing groceries worth $5. He had been suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for five years. When Mitchell was brought to court, the judge ruled that he was not competent to stand trial and ordered that he be transferred to a state-run mental health facility for treatment. The state hospital claimed that there was no vacancy. Mitchell was kept in jail and nobody intervened when he refused to take his medicines and food. He was found dead in his cell four months later, in August. 

Parminder Shergill, an Army veteran served as an infantryman in Iraq. Police knew that he suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was having a psychotic episode when Lodi police shot him 14 times in 2014. 

Shergill was buried with full military honors. He was a naturalized U.S. citizen. A Sacramento Bee editorial poignantly concluded, “Parminder Singh Shergill offered his life in service to his adopted country. He deserved more from us than this.”

What is the value of human life? The answer depends on one’s value system. Mental illnesses are brain diseases, not crimes. Mentally ill people need treatment, not a death sentence carried out instantaneously.

People incarcerated in the U.S. are 25 percent of all prisoners in the world, while the U.S. population is only 5 percent of the world’s population. More than 50 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated in the U.S. have mental health problems. 

Since half of those killed by police in the U.S. have mental problems, let’s compare the U.S. to deaths by police in other developed countries.

Canada had 14 fatal shootings by police in 2014.

In the U.K., police killed one person in 2014, zero in 2013, and one in 2012. U.S. police killed more people (almost twice) in March 2015 than the U.K. did in the entire 20th century.

Fatal shootings by German police from 2013 to 2014 were zero.

U.S. police killed 13 people in the first two weeks of 2015. German police killed 13 people in two years (2011 and 2012 combined).

China’s population is 4.5 times that of the U.S. In 2014, China had 12 police shootings that resulted in death, while U.S. law enforcement killed 1,100 people.

In the history of Iceland, police have killed one person. 

There have been zero police shootings in Japan since 2012.

Australian police fatally shot 94 people in 19 years (1992 to 2011).

In Finland, police fired only six bullets during 2013 with no fatalities.

According to The Economist, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.

What is puzzling is that while violent crimes have dropped in the U.S., the number of people killed by the police increased 44 percent from 2013 to 2014.  

The heinous police practice of firing multiple rounds is perverse and egregious. Examples from 2014 and 2015 are shown below (the number of shots are indicated next to name(s)).

2014:
    Laquan McDonald..........................................................16
    Kajieme Powell...............................................................12
    Vonderrit Myers................................................................8
    Joseph Jennings............................................................16
    Parminder Shergill..........................................................14

2015:
    Antonio Zambrano-Montes............................................17
    Walter Scott.....................................................................8
    Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.........................137

The first step necessary to solve a problem is to recognize existence of the problem. There is a need for the public to realize that we have two serious problems: One is mental illness, and the second is police brutality. 

Here are some things we could do to address the issue:

This society needs to invest in treatment of mentally ill by providing adequate funding. Research has shown that a society gains much more by providing mental health services than the cost of such services.

All police job candidates should be screened through psychological testing for equanimity, tolerance of diversity, stability of mind under pressure, and temperament.

The length of police training in the U.S. is typically 19 weeks. In European countries, training periods are much longer; in Germany, it’s 130 weeks.

Dealing with the severely mentally ill has always been an integral part of police work. It should be mandatory that all police officers be trained to pacify and calm down a mentally ill person to avoid or at least minimize, violent confrontations.

Using a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) approach reduces use of force by police while dealing with potentially violent encounters with mentally ill. A recent study concluded that officers who took the CIT course were more likely to refer people to mental health services than arrest them. Conclusions drawn by this study were based on research that assessed more than 600 officers and 1,000 encounters with people suffering from mental illness. 

If necessary, police should use non-lethal weapons such as Tasers and pepper spray to deal with mentally ill. European countries educate police forces on using non-lethal alternatives to shooting. 

When it is absolutely necessary to use force, police should shoot at an arm, leg, or some other non-vital body part. The current practice of aiming the gun at the head, heart, or other vital organs is indefensible. The objective should be to immobilize the mentally ill person temporarily, not to kill them.

All police officers should be required to wear body cameras when on patrol.

The war on drugs resulted in enactment of laws that eroded freedoms protecting civilians from police brutality. Most people did not realize when the laws were passed that the result would be erosion of freedom, not just for the guilty but also for innocent citizens. The overwhelming majority of police brutality cases are caused by the war on drugs. Ending it will decrease police brutality and deaths.

Ostensibly, we have a hyper-militarized police culture. Until now, law enforcement’s stance has been to vilify and demonize critics of police brutality, instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of their lethal actions. Police must make necessary improvements for performing their duties in a professional manner. “Anybody who acknowledges that there’s a problem in law enforcement in this country right now is considered by law enforcement part of the problem—whether that be me, whether that be (New York Mayor) Bill de Blasio, whether that be President Barack Obama,” stated Quentin Tarantino. 

Police officers should remember that a badge is not a license to kill, and the U.S. is not a police state. While performing their duties, officers must not violate the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Those who have sworn to uphold the law are not above the law.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” stated Gandhi. It is worth remembering.

Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Mentoring Program for At Risk Youth at the Pacific Beach High School. He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to zafiqbalslo@gmail.com.

 

 

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