Solutions elusive as police kill 64 this year with serious mental illness
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Hit squads from the Mexican mafia. Gangs of painkiller-thieving youths. The government. They were coming, always coming. From around the corner or down the street, he couldn't know where.
Michael Mahoney, 36, had a hard life, spending months in juvenile detention centers and six years in prison before deciding to turn things around. He enrolled in welding courses and cared for his ailing father in their Oxnard, Calif., home. Then his schizophrenia took over.
He lived his last months in fear and paranoia, once screaming out, "Kill me!" Then someone did. Mahoney died Aug. 14 of a gunshot wound to the chest after three officers, responding to a report of a man with a weapon, fired on him.
Mahoney was one of 64 mentally ill people who died after being shot with a gun or electroshock device by U.S. law enforcement this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That is about three times the number that police indicated in a 2009 Department of Justice survey, the last year for which statistics are available.
At least 16 of the 64 had schizophrenia, were prone to violence and avoided taking medications. Some had been released from hospitals after stays that families thought were too brief to be therapeutic. Mahoney spent 45 hours in a psychiatric center where he'd been confined for his own safety, discharged nine days before he died with a flare gun in his hand.
"It is a shame that a bullet is what our mental health safety net has become," said Louis Josephson, chief executive officer of Riverbend Community Mental Health Inc. in Concord, N.H., which offers outpatient and residential programs.
The failures of the U.S. health care system in treating the seriously mentally ill have swelled the police workload in all 50 states and put the emotionally disturbed at the mercy of law enforcement officers, who may have little or no training in defusing situations fueled by psychosis.
While no diagnosis has been made public, the emotional state of Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has focused attention on the role of mental health in violence. At a news conference Dec. 18, President Barack Obama vowed to make treatment for mental illness as easy to obtain as a gun.
In a 2011 survey, 82 percent of 2,400 police chiefs and sheriffs said calls to deal with the mentally ill had increased substantially over their time in office, according to Michael Biasotti, president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.
Jonathan Smith, head of the agency's civil rights special litigation section, tied the shootings, in part, to the diminishment of U.S. health care for the mentally ill. The number of beds in state hospitals has plummeted 92 percent, to 42,385 in 2011, from the mid-1950s. Laws in 44 states designed to force the most seriously ill to stay on their medication are often underused or ignored, according to Brian Stettin of the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center.
None of the officers in the 64 incidents that Bloomberg documented has been found criminally liable.
First Published December 28, 2012 12:00 am