(Reuters) – The fatal shooting by police of a mentally unstable California man and the anguished response of his sister who had called 911 seeking help highlight the risks of a U.S. system that often relies on law enforcement to respond to mental health crises.
Alfred Olango, 38, a Ugandan-born immigrant, was shot by one officer even as another, who had been trained to deal with mentally ill people, attempted to subdue him with a Taser, police said.
The confrontation in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon came at a time when San Diego County is facing a doubling of mental health-related calls since 2009, officials said, tracking the impact of decades of tight budgets for mental health services.
“This is a systemic issue across the country,” said Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute, a mental health policy research and advocacy group in Sacramento.
Merritt said there was no protocol for situations like the one Olango’s family faced and people typically turn to police for help.
As cities and counties increasingly rely on police to respond to calls about people who are mentally unstable, many police officers are undergoing special training.
In California, new laws require all police officers to undergo 15 hours of training in dealing with people who have mental health problems.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for a review of that city’s Crisis Intervention Team and improved guidance for officers after the police shooting of 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier, who relatives said suffered from mental issues.
Mentally ill people have been shot to death in recent years by police in Texas, California, Colorado and Virginia. In Los Angeles last year, more than a third of people shot by police had mental health issues, according to a Los Angeles police report.
Americans with severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians, an advocacy group found.
But Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said the solution is not more training for officers – it’s ending the decay of U.S. mental health services that has led the severely mentally ill living on the streets or with family members who cannot properly care for them.
“The reasons for the problems you’re witnessing today have little or nothing to do with police training and have everything to do with generations of politicians who have let the mental health system collapse in this country,” Pasco said. “It’s not the police officers’ fault.”
In San Diego County, the number of mental-health related requests fielded by police officers there has increased from 17,000 in 2009 to 32,000 last year, said Mark Marvin, who runs a program in San Diego County to train and assist law enforcement officers in dealing with mentally ill subjects.
Police officers in the county, including those in El Cajon, go through training that can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as three days, he said.
In the more intensive training, Marvin said, he tries to simulate for officers potentially difficult situations, such as when a subject is hallucinating and therefore cannot really respond to an officer’s commands.
Very often, the go-to police response of taking control of a situation and issuing orders backfires with a person who is having a mental health crisis, he said.
“You have to set a tone of trust and understanding,” Marvin said.
His program also provides trained clinicians, who serve along with police in the county’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams. A clinician did not accompany the officers who responded to calls by Olango’s sister for help with her brother, El Cajon police said, although one of the two officers who did respond had received extensive mental health training.
It was the other officer who shot Olango, after he pulled his hands out of his pockets and assumed what they said was shooter-like stance. No gun was found at the scene and police later said he had been holding a vape smoking device.
Fearing that their mentally ill loved ones will be harmed, families are increasingly afraid to call emergency response lines for help, said Ron Thomas, whose schizophrenic son Kelly died after he was beaten by police in the Los Angeles suburb of Fullerton in 2011.
“Police officers do not want to deal with the mentally ill and homeless, no matter how much training they’ve had,” said Thomas.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Ben Klayman and Michael Perry)