Mental Illness Meets a Bullet in Normal Heights

Revere’s statement is supported by statistics. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit promoting the treatment of mental illness, officer-involved justifiable homicides occur in this country at a rate nearly four times greater in the mentally ill population than in the general public.

In December 2007, the San Diego district attorney’s office issued a report titled “Officer-Involved Shooting Review,” an analysis of 200 cases, both fatal and nonfatal, that the office had investigated between 1996 and 2007. The report stated that the presence of drugs and/or mental illness occurred in 154 of the 200 officer-involved shootings. Of the 154 cases, 26 involved people with documented mental illnesses, 36 involved mental illness and drugs, and 52 involved people exhibiting “unstable behavior.”

When asked how many mentally ill people have been shot by law enforcement officers in the county between 2007 and 2010, deputy district attorney Richard Armstrong responded: “A determination of how many involved persons were mentally ill is not feasible. ‘Mentally ill’ is an amorphous term — some persons involved in officer-involved shootings might have severe mental health issues, others might have minor mental health issues, many have none. There is no ‘check box’ for mental health status in evaluating these events.”

Asked if the district attorney’s office takes into account a suspect’s mental health condition when reviewing an officer-involved shooting, Armstrong responded: “Our office does not treat an incident any differently if the suspect/victim has a mental disability. Our review determines whether or not the use of deadly force in an incident was legally justified.”

San Diego County does have one program to aid law enforcement. If notified that a mental health emergency exists, police dispatchers may alert a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team.

Twenty-three teams, each comprising a licensed mental health clinician and a specially trained officer, work in shifts throughout the county to provide support in a crisis. The program is a partnership of county law enforcement agencies, administered by a nonprofit.

Sitting inside the response team’s headquarters, in an office building off Morena Boulevard in Linda Vista, Dr. Jim Fix, the executive director, explains the difficulties of responding to mental health emergencies and talks of the increase in calls during recent years.

“The recipe for disaster is somebody who is severely psychotic and agitated, and law enforcement. It has the potential to be very volatile. When these two subsets come together, very good things can happen and very bad things can happen.”

Fix says that calls for the psychiatric response teams have increased by 15 percent each year for the past five years. In 2009, teams fielded 15,000 calls, 7500 of which required mental health interventions.

“We’re just scratching the surface of the calls coming in,” Fix says. “There are fewer resources compared to the number of people who need them.”

Fix blames the increased need on the poor economy, the high number of veterans plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, and the cuts to mental health programs.

Fix and the response team’s board of directors would like to secure more funds to use for training. Currently, the program offers training sessions four times a year for 50 officers per session.

“I’m working my tail off to increase the training to the best of my ability,” says Fix.

Until such training is routine for all officers, and until law enforcement agencies develop transparent policies and procedures for handling incidents involving mentally ill people, grieving families such as Nathan Manning’s will be left to search for explanations as to why an officer killed their loved one.

“It seems to me that the San Diego Police Department was mostly focused on circling their wagons to protect their own interests, keeping all known information close to the chest, and leaving grieving family members and friends to play a veritable shell game, looking under cups for the actual truth about what really happened,” writes Noah Manning in a follow-up email. 

“What options are available to my family to find the true facts surrounding the death of my brother? It would appear the answer is: grieve, grin and bear it, or file a lawsuit. [The latter requires] time, energy, and money. And, the perception by some that greed is our motivating factor — nothing could be further from the truth.”

Two weeks ago, Nathan Manning’s parents filed a formal complaint with the San Diego Police Department, a prelude to filing a lawsuit.

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