Methods That Police Use on the Mentally Ill Are Madness

Why do so many American cops believe that shooting a schizophrenic man dead for failing to drop a screwdriver is an acceptable outcome?

When This American Life dedicated two episodes to law enforcement in the United States, they titled them, "Cops See It Differently." Citing examples like the NYPD killing of Eric Garner, which gave rise to the "I can't breath" protests, the show illustrated how police and non-uniformed citizens assessing the same incidents would draw wildly different conclusions even after watching video footage. Last year, I observed the same phenomenon when St. Louis, Missouri, police officers shot and killed Kajieme Powell in another videotaped encounter. Many cops saw a guy with a knife who didn't drop it and a justified use of lethal force. Critics pointed out that there was never an attempt to deescalate the situation. A similar disconnect followed the Cleveland police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

And this week, newly released video footage is giving Americans yet another glimpse at how police are trained, their mindset, and how the results can be lethal. The killing happened last year in Dallas, Texas. The mother of Jason Harrison, a black man with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, called police to say that he was off his meds. She wanted help getting him to the hospital—something she'd received before without incident—and requested cops trained to handle the mentally ill.

What happened next is graphic and upsetting to watch.

Within seconds of the door being opened, the two police officers saw that Harrison was fumbling with a screwdriver. They began shouting at him to drop it and quickly shot him five times. The moment just prior to the shooting is captured incompletely in the body cam footage. In conflicting reports each officer said that Harrison lunged at the other, according to CNN. An attorney hired to represent Harrison's family says Jason posed no threat and argues that had he really lunged, his body would've filled the lens of the officer's body cam before he was shot.

As this story makes the rounds at various news outlets the comments sections have functioned like a microcosm of the police/policed disconnect. Take the discussion at Fusion. Various commenters argued that the police officers overreacted, wondered why they didn't use a taser or pepper spray instead of bullets, and otherwise questioned their judgment. "Why can a cop never back up and talk someone down?" Christopher Street asked. "Is it a concern that this will be perceived as a weakness? That's actually a question, not a criticism. Why is force always the first instinct? Didn't this escalate way too quickly? All it took was 20 seconds from the door opening. And then the lack of urgency after the shots, yelling at a dying/dead man to drop a screw driver he obviously wasn't going to use."

In a series of rebuttals, a police officer from another state, Jake Rouse, articulated some common law-enforcement perspectives. Here are several of his arguments:

  • "The taser is not always effective. It is very common for it not to stop a person. The cops were within 5 feet of a subject holding a dangerous instrument who just so happened to be progressing toward them in an aggressive manor [sic]. Try this exercise. Get a friend to stand even 20ft from you. Have him run at you and see how quickly you think you could change from taser to gun if it malfunctioned without getting stabbed in the face. It's easy to judge from the sidelines when you have minutes to critique a decision..."
  • "Any person who says if a person ran at them with a screwdriver wouldn't be scared is a liar. In the situation he was in I don't see a way around deadly force."
  • "Honestly I can't say what I would have done. Neither can anyone else. Until you are in the shoes of that officer you can't say what you would have done. I've been in bad situations and know what it's like to think about your wife and child and wonder if another man will take care of them like you do. I can honestly say that if you put me in a spot where I have to choose my life or yours I will spend my last breath and my last round trying to stay alive... I believe that officer thought that he had no other choice."
  • "God knows we make mistakes because we are people too. That officer probably cried himself to sleep that night. We have hearts just like everyone else. We just act different because we have to put our fear, personal feelings, beliefs, and often our lives aside to do what we have to only to be judged and torn apart by millions who will never know what it's like to wear the badge."

This defense is unpersuasive insofar as it narrows the analytic focus to the moment when the police officers pulled their triggers. Even if we give the officers the benefit of the doubt and assume that Harrison did lunge at them with the screwdriver, it seems to me that they made significant errors before and after that moment.

When they first saw Harrison fiddling with the screwdriver in a non-menacing way, why did they escalate the situation by shouting at the mentally ill man? They could have immediately backed up, giving themselves the time and space to try to deescalate. Why did they stand their ground instead, yelling with guns drawn? And after they shot Harrison five times, so that he lay face down on the ground bleeding and either dead or unconscious, why did they keep shouting at him to drop the screwdriver, as if he still posed a threat, rather than trying to save his life?

Understandably, the police officers involved aren't talking to the media. We don't know how they would answer these questions. Perhaps after looking at the video they are as convinced as you or me that they should have handled the situation better or that they ought to have been trained and acculturated to react differently.

But Jake Rouse, the policeman defending them in Facebook comments, goes on to express a more troubling attitude that I've seen elsewhere in law enforcement circles. This is the exchange that made me glad that he isn't a police officer in my city:

With the caveat that not all police officers think this way, Clint Nelissen is absolutely right—and Jake Rouse has a factually inaccurate understanding of the risks that he faces. Jobs where Americans get killed at a much higher rate than police officers include loggers, fishermen, aircraft pilots, roofers, steel workers, refuse collectors, power-line workers, truck drivers, agricultural workers, and construction laborers. That isn't to dispute that being a cop is a dangerous job compared to many or that even one dead or seriously wounded police officer is too many. But the comparison to soldiers in Iraq is wrongheaded in almost every respect and particularly absurd in the context of a mentally ill man with a screwdriver.

Eugene Robinson once pointed out that U.S. police officers shoot somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people per year, whereas "there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada—a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms—police shootings average about a dozen a year." He added that this is partly because the U.S. is a gun-filled culture, but that something else was going on too. Since every developed country has both mentally ill people and screwdrivers, this case is a data point in support of that contention. Compare the video from Dallas to London policemen going above and beyond what anyone could reasonably expect in an attempt to disarm a man with a machete:

I wouldn't ask that much of our police. But I'd ask for much better than the outcome in the Harrison killing—whereas a retired trainer from the Dallas police department said the two officers did "an absolutely perfect job" and that he would show their video as an example of good tactics! Not all police think that way. And Dallas has a police chief who is highly regarded by reform advocates and some officers beneath him who consistently call for thoughtful improvements to policing.

In this case that leadership wasn't enough.

"Was this illegal? is the wrong question," Radley Balko writes. "The better question is, Was this an acceptable outcome? And if the answer is no, then the follow-up question is, What needs to change to stop this from happening again?" Among other things, he suggests that "there’s no reason use of force policy and deescalation training shouldn’t be among the issues discussed in a sheriff’s election." In how many jurisdictions could that issue secure a majority's support?

The time to find out has come.