Monday, February 19, 2018

Editorial: Reducing police shootings of mentally ill should be our goal

Jan. 24, 2018 at 11:39 p.m.

This is a story that keeps repeating itself both here and across the United States.

It is simply this: Mentally ill individual causes a disruption. Police are called. Mentally ill person is shot and killed.

It happened again this weekend when a Harrison County sheriff's deputy killed Arther McAfee Jr., 61, during an altercation in his home.

You also might remember the shooting death of Kristiana Coignard almost exactly three years ago in the lobby of the Longview Police Department. Police departments in Kilgore and Gladewater have had similar encounters.

If it seems like a police shooting death involving a mentally ill person happens somewhere almost every day, it is because that isn't too far from being the truth.

Last year, according to a Washington Post database, 987 deaths were attributed to police shootings. In 236 of those, the person killed had demonstrable mental illness. That number does not count those who may have been mentally ill but never diagnosed.

That is roughly 25 percent of all shooting deaths by police in 2017.

McAfee's death is under investigation by the Texas Rangers. While family members and some witnesses insist the shooting was not necessary, we will withhold judgment until the Rangers have issued their report.

All the other area cases investigated by the Rangers have found police officers acted properly. So far as we can tell officers also have been exonerated in the national shooting deaths involving mentally ill subjects.

The results of the investigations, however, do not mean the deaths were inevitable. Far from it.

In the pivotal moment, perhaps shooting was the only way the officer could save his own life or the life of another. Often when officers feel lives are in danger there are only split seconds to act. Those actions are sometimes questionable.

Even if no wrongdoing is found when deadly force is used, that should not be taken to assure the crisis was handled in the best way. Often the public does not hear of reprimands that might be issued internally to officers. We don't know what procedures are tweaked or completely changed after a shooting shows flaws in the system.

The fact shootings like these occur so frequently across the United States convinces us steps should be taken to help police better and more humanely deal with mentally ill individuals.

The first step should be additional training — a step that has been suggested before by many sources. Unfortunately, we don't know just how much that happens or how many departments can afford to take part. Training in handling mental health issues definitely should be a part of the basic curriculum at police academies but that is not enough. Ongoing training also is needed.

Secondly, law enforcement agencies should review their procedures for dealing with subjects known or suspected to be suffering with mental illness. As these incidents continue to happen it is fairly clear there is room for improvement.

Of course police officers should protect themselves with deadly force when necessary. Our goal should be to see that happens far less often. That would be a benefit for all concerned.



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