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Back in the 1970s, a monumental landmark court case unlocked the doors of this country’s state hospitals and other institutions housing – more like warehousing – hundreds of thousands, perhaps a couple million mentally ill men and women on the strength of a new standard of commitment: that anyone not posing a danger to themselves or others could not be forced into what was essentially incarceration of people with mental illnesses. The court told the system to fix itself.

It never really did.

What the politicians failed to do was follow up on mandates calling for community-based housing and treatment facilities and services that could help treat and shelter people afflicted with such persistent illnesses as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder (once called manic depression), especially those that, under serious circumstances could result in erratic and dangerous behavior or outbursts – especially those who stopped the treatments that stabilized their brain chemistry.

Instead, many of those millions were often left homeless and/or unemployable, therefore unable to cope in an amorphous world where others avoided contact or responded violently to the unstable expressions of their illnesses. For whatever reason, many of those saddled with bi-polar disorder cease taking their meds when they start to feel “normal,” and find themselves back in the wide swings of mood that characterize bi-polar disorder. The manic phase can be intoxicating and the depressive phase often suicidal or violent. The mental illnesses most at risk (some may not seem dangerous)*:

All cases of schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder)

Severe cases of major depression and bipolar disorder (mood disorders)

Severe cases of panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (anxiety disorders)

Severe cases of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (typically, a childhood disorder)

Severe cases of anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder).

*(Timothy A. Kelly (2002) A Policymaker’s Guide to Mental Illness. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation.)

Such has been the case with several mentally ill citizens of communities across the country facing down police officers all too ready to react with fatal or deadly force. Some of this is contrived – a method of suicide by cop – i.e., intentional death by confrontation with police officers they know will shoot to kill if a weapon is brandished or they feel threatened by anyone advancing on them.

One case of the “quick-draw” killing of a mentally ill Minneapolis woman actually resulted in some serious retrospection by the officers involved and resulted in the formation of a foundation designed to stave off such fatal clashes between cops and the mentally ill they confront through training – Crisis Intervention Teams – or CIT. That foundation – the Barbara Schneider Foundation – born out of the death twelve years ago of an otherwise respected and active community person who died in the midst of a psychotic episode when police responded to complaints about excessive noise from an apartment and came face-to-face with a distraught Schneider wielding a knife. One of the cops involved, Minneapolis Police Sgt. William Palmer, remembered all too well 10 years later how he felt forced to respond with deadly force.

Police killings of mentally ill citizens (*EDP = emotionally disturbed person) continue to occur – and, of course, some cops can be killed in the process as well:

  • Ki Yang, 46, St. Paul  – shot, 2003. Suffered from schizophrenia and had a history of violent episodes
  • David Cornelius Smith, 28 – Bipolar – Tasered 2010 by Minneapolis police–died twice at scene, died 10 days later
  • James Ludwig, Vietnam vet, homeless and mentally ill (emotionally disturbed), surrounded and shot to death by St. Paul Police 1993
  • Officer Richard Francis – 27-yr veteran Chicago cop – shot while trying to subdue an EDP*
  • Andrew Hanlon, 20 – Irish immigrant – shot to death by Silverton, Ore. Cop claiming threat
  • Francisco Martes, 40 – homeless EDP – shot dead after wielding a knife around a cop
  • Kelly Thomas, 37 – homeless w/ schizophrenia – tasered and beaten to death by six Fullerton, CA cops
  • Craig Edward Prescott, 38 – bi-polar former sheriff’s deputy tasered, water-balled and crushed in his cell by 8 other deputies – April 2009
  • Pierre Abernathy – a mentally ill citizen of San Antonio, Texas – was tased and beaten to death by a group of at least six police officers on August 4, 2011
  • The list goes on. Mostly men, often homeless.

Questions persist about why the police, as an institution and culture cannot or will not make as part of their earliest training methods to subdue mentally ill and agitated men and women without killing. They have the armor and they have the firepower – why not the skill?

TTT’s ANDY DRISCOLL and MICHELLE ALIMORADI talk with two representatives of the Barbara Schneider Foundation in search of some answers.

Other Story Links:

James Ludwig Court Case

The Prison System as a Gulag for People with Serious Mental Illness

Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of People with Mental Illness

Newsweek article: Cops and the Mentally Ill


MARK ANDERSON, Executive Director, Barbara Schneider Foundation

RENEE JENSON, Community Collaborations Coordinator, Barbara Schneider Foundation

WITHDRAWN:  Representative of Hennepin County Community Corrections Dept.

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