25 Percent Of Black People Killed By Police Have Mental Illness: 3 Things You Need To Know

25 Percent Of Black People Killed By Police Have Mental Illness: 3 Things You Need To Know

mental illness
25 Percent Of Black People Killed By Police Have Mental Illness: 3 Things You Need To Know Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

On Jan. 5, 2020, 18-year-old Miciah Lee was shot and killed by Sparks police in Nevada when they responded to a call of an allegedly suicidal person.

In October, Walter Wallace Jr. was experiencing a mental illness episode when his family called for an ambulance. Instead of healthcare first responders, the police arrived. During a confrontation with Wallace, police shot and killed the 27-year-old.

A new study found that 25 percent of Black people who have been killed by police had a mental illness.

Here are three things you need to know.

1. Untreated mental illness and police: a bad combination

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to the new study by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Although there are fewer than one in 50 U.S. adults who are mentally ill, at least one in four of those with untreated mental illness has been involved in up to half of all fatal police shootings, the Treatment Advocacy Center reported. Often, it’s because police are the first responders.

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“By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center and a co-author of the study. “This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.”

The report, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” encourages lawmakers to reduce loss of life and the many social costs associated with police shootings by enacting various public policies. The report urges that the role of mental illness in fatal police shootings be identified and reported in government data collection.

“It should horrify but not surprise us that people with untreated mental illness are overrepresented in deadly encounters with law enforcement,” said Snook. “Individuals with untreated mental illness are vastly overrepresented in every corner of the criminal justice system. Until we reform the public policies that have abandoned them there, these tragic outcomes will continue.”

Another report found that almost half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability, according to a new report, published by disability organization Ruderman Family Foundation.

2. Police tend to be the default responders

Many advocates are calling for mental health workers be the first responders in emergencies involving mentally ill people. Most police are not equipped to handle incidents involving mental illness, yet they tend to be the first responders in such cases.

“Police have become the default responders to mental health calls,” wrote the Ruderman Family Foundation study authors, historian David Perry and disability expert Lawrence Carter-Long, who analyzed incidents from 2013 to 2015.

They propose that “people with psychiatric disabilities” are presumed to be “dangerous to themselves and others” in police interactions.

Some cities are trying to tailor 911 responders to each case. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray recently announced a pilot project that they expect could save lives. It involves using mental health professionals instead of police in response to 911 calls that may be mental health emergencies.

The program is modeled after the CAHOOTS program in Oregon in which social workers and police share the responsibilities of 911 emergency calls.

“Of the more than 170,000 mental health calls to 911 last year, an estimated one call every three minutes, the majority of concerns were people who just needed help — no indication of violence at all,” McCray told ABC News.

“Making health-only teams the default response will reduce the number of times police respond and ensure that people get the physical and mental health care they need quickly,” McCray said.

Other police departments are experimenting with innovative approaches. Phoenix Police launched an entire squad, the Crisis Intervention Team, devoted to responding to emergencies that involve mental health issues, The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Illinois (NAMI Illinois) reported.

Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat who represents California’s 45th Congressional District, is introducing a bill with three other Democrats aimed at reducing violence against people with mental illnesses. They want to create special units that would be dispatched instead of police for 911 calls to respond to mental health crises. 

Porter introduced the Mental Health Justice Act along with Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.). It’s co-sponsored by 25 Democratic lawmakers. The bill would create a grant program to fund the hiring, training, salaries and benefits of mental health first responder units, Common Dreams reported.

Porter tweeted news of the bill, saying, “Roughly one in four fatal police shootings end the life of an individual with mental illness. My bill, which I introduced with @RepCardenas, @RepPressley, and @butterfieldleeMGS, would make our communities safer for all.”

Response of Twitter was positive. One user posted, “This bill is truly needed. People with mental illnesses are usually not armed. It’s the domestic terrorist groups that are heavily armed”


Another responded, “I have close friends/relatives who are good cops & they do not have the training or the desire to take over for mental health experts; they are forced into these situations as the ‘cheapest option’ (at schools as well as 911 calls) where they are not equiped to help. Thank you!”

Another wrote, “All police have is a club, gun, taser, cuffs, spray & no real training to handle these situations, no matter how well intentioned they are. Your MUCH NEEDED LEGISLATION will save lives, promote recovery and not put police into these potentially terrible situations. Thanks so much”

3. Racial disparity in police shootings unchanged over 5 years

Despite more media attention on police shootings of Black people, the numbers haven’t changed. Over the past five years, there has been no reduction in the racial disparity in fatal police shooting victims, according to a new report by researchers at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

The report used data from 2015 to May 2020. It was published in the Oct. 27 edition of the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health.

Even the increased use of police body cameras hasn’t changed the disproportionate representation of Black people with mental health issues who are being shot by police.

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There were 5,367 fatal police shootings during the five-year study period, according to the Post’s database. Armed Black people were killed at 2.6 times the rate of white people (1,265 total killed). Among unarmed victims of police shootings, Black people were killed at three times the rate (218 total killed).

“In an analysis of 4,653 fatal shootings for which information about both race and age were available, the researchers found a small but statistically significant decline in white deaths (about 1 percent) but no significant change in deaths for (black, Indigenous and people of color),” Yale News reported.