Politics & Issues
11:02 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Videotaped Incident Puts Spotlight On Police Interaction With The Mentally Ill

A video that shows two St. Louis police department officers striking a man has once again put the spotlight on the fraught interaction between police and the mentally ill.

The man, Mario Crump, has a history of mental illness. His family had called police for assistance because he was acting erratically. It’s not clear what happened before and after the 40-second video, which was shot by a family member. The incident happened March 21 at Crump's house in the 4300 block of Lee.

St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson said the department began investigating the video as soon as it was brought to his attention last week. 

"Any police department, when things like this happen, we have to ask ourselves, what did we do right, what did we do wrong. Immediately it was very clear to me that there needed to be an investigation internally to try and understand what happened that night," he said.

Dotson said both officers involved in the altercation had undergone what’s known as Crisis Intervention Team training, which give law enforcement officials the skills necessary to determine if a person’s behavior may be the result of mental illness, and to de-escalate the situation.

"But what I think is important is, this is a block of instruction,” Dotson said. “By no means does it put the officers in the position where they are a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or even a clinician."

Credit (St. Louis Public Radio file photo)

The incident comes on the heels of a police shooting of a mentally ill homeless man in Albuquerque, N.M. on March 16.  That incident led to protests there. A 2013 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center quoted in the New York Times earlier this week estimates that half the people shot and killed by police have mental health problems.

Joe Yancey is the executive director of Places for People, which provides treatment and services to those who have complex mental health issues but lack the resources to receive help elsewhere.

He told St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann that most interactions between law enforcement and the mentally ill begin when someone close to the individual – a family member, physician, other service provider - feels the need to call police.

Yancey also said:

  • Encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill often become tense because those with mental illness do not react to police in the way police expect. For example, they may ignore a direct order. But Yancey says the mentally ill often do not hear an order from police because of their disordered thinking. Training can help officers understand the need to repeat a command, or bring in people who can help break through.
  • The December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School brought attention to the need to address mental illness, but resources are still far behind the need, especially when it comes to emergency psychiatric services.

You can view the video of the incident here. Please be advised that it contains strong language and images of the struggle.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann