Police and Psychiatrically Disabled Individuals with Weapons

And then followed a lively Twitter conversation.

I follow Lowery due to his great work in Ferguson, and am glad someone @mentioned me in the conversation to draw me in. The case in question is about the Justice Department not finding anyone culpable in the 2012 shooting death of a man with a penknife who didn’t comply. Regular readers will know my phrase – “the cult of compliance” – which comes into such striking clarity in events like this.

What’s interesting, and tragic, to me, is that when someone gets beaten or killed in a situation like this, the emphasis is always on the final moment. Police surround or approach an armed individual with mental illness, demand the person comply, they don’t comply, and then they kill him or her. The officers are then usually exonerated by the justice system, because at that final moment, there was a real threat to the officers.

But it’s possible to re-imagine a strategic approach to such situations to make that threat less likely to occur.

1. Is there a threat? I contend that a man with a knife standing nowhere close to other people is not an imminent threat. Officers who are aware of the mental illness component have to respond differently than they might in other circumstances. For example, here’s a video/reports of a drunk white guy with a rifle – police are very careful not to push it to an aggressive confrontation and the situation gradually de-escalates.

Compare that to this case, in which police swarm (warning, video is disturbing) to try and take control, resulting in death.

Part of this is, surely, racial.
Part of this, too, is the knife vs gun. It’s less threatening but also seems to mandate a fast response.

I’ll be interested to hear what my police readers (yes, I have police readers, smart folks who really want to build better police procedures) say.

2. If there is a threat, what is the least violent way of dealing with it? I am no fan of TASERS, but they exist precisely for situations like this. Police are, however, legally authorized to use their firearms when confronted with a threat to themselves, and a person close by with a knife is a threat.

The 2012 story in Michigan keeps playing out. I talked about it in this CNN piece on 4 police killings in August.  It’s the story of Kajieme Powell, who had a small knife. Michelle Cusseaux, who had a hammer. It’s the story of every mentally ill (I prefer the term psychiatric disability, for reasons I spell out in the article) individual, especially people of color, who are holding a weapon, are not an imminent threat, but who get killed.

I argue that once police engage and create a dynamic in which the person with the disability has to drop their weapon and comply, or be shot, being shot is inevitable. I wrote, “In each case, police demanded that a disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot. Now four more people are dead.” And more people will die.

Looking at the whole, I conclude:

The stories follow a similar pattern. The victim had a weapon and did not respond to police commands to drop it, and so they died. Of course, a person struggling with his or her disability is not likely to follow verbal police commands in a moment of stress. Once the equation reached drop or die, death was inevitable.

The only solution is for the police to avoid getting into that situation if at all possible. Unfortunately, this runs directly against police training. Police are trained to display command presence in the face of uncertainly, seizing control of a situation by issuing orders, demanding compliance and using force on those who won’t obey. Protect and serve has become command and control.

There are other models. Seattle police now teach their recruits to be “guardians.” Others emphasize patience. When Cusseaux frustrated the police by opening and closing the door repeatedly, why not just wait her out? Moreover, where were the Tasers? Taser-overuse is a major problem, but if they have a place in modern policing, surely it’s when confronted by an armed psychiatrically disabled person at close range.

I’m increasingly sure that while CIT – AKA the “memphis model” –  provides training and resources for LEOs who take the classes, this particular set of training doesn’t save the life of armed mentally ill individuals. Instead, the police have to decide that shooting is the genuinely last resort and avoid creating the “comply or die” or rather “be not disabled or die” situations.

When shooting is genuinely the last resort, and no one is at risk, you don’t charge in to take command of the situation, but rather keep maximum space between you and the individual. You deploy maximum patience. This goes significantly against standard police training, but … it’s possible.

And here’s the final piece – all of these procedures that might save the lives of people with psychiatric disabilities, they could save your life too. They should become standard.

9 Replies to “Police and Psychiatrically Disabled Individuals with Weapons”

  1. Erin says:

    Wow! "…police demanded that a disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot."

    My daughter, who is 7 and has Down syndrome, has gotten in trouble at school recently for saying mean things to peers. One day it was, "My Daddy will kill you." She followed it up with a, "My Mommy will kill you," when the teacher tried to facilitate an apology. She ended up in the principal's office with the special education teacher, and they talked with her about the seriousness of the situation, and then insisted that she apologize. When she refused, they "helped" her write "I'm sorry" on a piece of paper and give it to the boy. What did she learn from that? Compliance? Obedience? Powerlessness?

    I suppose we're lucky. In some school districts this behavior would probably result in a suspension. Unfortunately, no one bothered to try to get to the bottom of why she was angry at the boy and help model language to resolve the situation.

    He's actually someone she has been in school with since she was 3, and he was the one child in her preschool who was overtly mean to her – they actually had to make a plan to address his behavior. Additionally, my daughter has a language delay. She has a great vocabulary, but a difficult time with conversation and forming novel responses. As a result, she says a lot of the same things over and over. I'm not sure where the killing language came from – my guess is school – but she knows that it is something to say when you're upset with someone.

    Can you just imagine her in a movie theater in 10 years or so, refusing to leave…

  2. David Perry says:

    Oh Erin, I can imagine that, all too easily. She's the reason why we have so much work to do.

    Good luck with the school. Don't accept this as appropriate response, if it's a battle you have the energy to fight.

  3. The Illinois Model says:

    One particularly interesting case study that seems to get lost in the mix is a 9thC decision on Glenn v Washington County Oregon. (http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/11/04/10-35636.pdf) The case is only held to those in 9thC region, but I use this a glimpse into the minds of our citizens, through the justices in that jurisdiction.

    If you read the case opinion, you will notice a paragraph that rephrases my popular and sarcastic: "Quick, somebody kill this guy before he hurts himself!!!" I use this case as a discussion-starter to explain risk management techniques BESIDES decisive force (ex: containment, negotiation, distance, cover, concealment, posturing, gathering intel, retreat.)

    Here is another problem: public misunderstanding (and mistrust?) of less-lethal force options. Specifically demonized are Taser and beanbag rounds. Yes, some anecdotal cases where these are misused. But I have been on-scene(!) of more than a handful of incidents where police saved disabled persons' lives through the use of Taser and/or beanbags and/or K9.

    When the public watches videos of perceived misuses of these less-lethal options, they want to take them away from officers. Some say "de-militarize!" But what taking these tools away really equates to is limiting alternatives to deadly force. It becomes a binary Shoot/No Shoot option, rather than giving police officers in-between options that REDUCE injury and force.

    Police need physical tools on their belts and in their squad cars, but they REALLY need more training in proper strategy & tactics that are consistent with risk management rather than wholly on "officer safety" without regard for others.

    Changing culture is an uphill battle. But we are moving up!

    Lou Hayes, police officer
    The Virtus Group, Inc.

  4. David Perry says:

    Thanks for commenting Lou. I'll look into the case.

    There's pretty well documented TASER misuse cases, I'd say, rather than anecdotal – in which they are used to force compliance rather than deal with the complexities. But when I criticize them, I /always/ make sure to say that they clearly have a major role in modern policing.

    MRAVs … I'm not so sure about.

    The problem is that the TASER is being used as a problem-solver. Someone mouths off, someone doesn't comply, someone acts weird, I've got lots of cases where the LEO just tases someone rather than sort out what's really going on (often, in my examples, disability).

    As always, it's training and accountability.

  5. The Illinois Model says:

    Taser misuse cases (both perceived and real) are on the decline. Here is the timeline:

    –Taser was put into police use, with no real understanding of where our communities would place them along a spectrum of force (this is NOT a linear force continuum – a whole other conversation by itself!).
    –Officers were VERY quick to use it so respond to the slightest touch of non-compliance.
    –Courts began to speak up for citizens and gave/give opinions regarding their force "level."
    –More and more agencies adopted Taser – with very successful results.
    –New standards of use for Taser.
    –But now we have more and more cameras capturing uses of Taser (imitations of camers is another conversation) and social media that turns every smartphone into a journalist's tool.

    There are vast vast successful, lawful, ethical uses of Taser that are overshadowed by the questionable uses captured on video and distributed via amateur media outlets.

    Anecdotal success (and partly contributing to my bias): federal jury just gave verdict on my partner and me regarding Taser use on suicidal disabled man, in our favor. It worked! We saved his life so he could sue us in federal court.


  6. R.P. says:

    I have a friend, retired policeman, who was dealing with a mentally disturbed man who was approaching him with a knife and would not stop coming towards my friend or put the knife down. My friend is ordering him to stop BECAUSE HE KNEW THE MAN WAS MENTALLY DISTURBED AND DID NOT WANT TO SHOOT HIM. The man wouldn't stop coming, never dropped the gun and my friend shot him – much against his desire. Thankfully the man lived.

  7. Anonymous says:

    "I contend that a man with a knife standing nowhere close to other people is not an imminent threat."

    As a layperson, I agree. Many law enforcement people would probably point to the Tueller Drill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tueller_Drill) to say that "21 feet or less" counts as "close" to other people and therefore an imminent threat.

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