Commentary: The Dangerous Mix of Policing and Mental Illness

By David M. Greenwald

I have watched the video of Christopher Gray getting shot and killed.  Tragic situation.  He had already stabbed his mother and she was dying.  There was a confrontation with the police, he seemed to charge at them and they opened fire.

Still, as the Vanguard’s Jordan Varney wrote on Monday, there are questions.  At the Police Accountability Commission (PAC), independent police auditor Michael Gennaco described the succession of the officers’ shots the night Christopher Gray died.

“Two officers fire, Mr. Gray goes down,” Gennaco explained. “The third officer fires his rounds 4.5 seconds after the last round that the two other officers have fired. By the time that third officer had started to fire, Gray was already on the ground, having fallen from the effects of the first two officers’ rounds.”

But there was a delay between the first and second set of shots—a 4.5 second pause before the third officer shot, Varney writes.

“What that third officer said,” Gennaco reported, “is that he believed at the time he fired that Mr. Gray was still up and coming in his direction when in fact all the evidence shows at the time he fired, Gray is on the ground.”

He said, “That’s a discrepancy and the question I would ask you is whether you think that that discrepancy needs to be further explored by Davis Police Department as part of their internal review.”

That’s a problem and clearly the city needs to resolve it.  But to me the bigger issue is whether shots needed to be fired in the first place.

A few weeks ago we were in Walnut Creek, and once again the culprit is mental illness in the case of Miles Hall.  I have watched the video.  The parents believe the cops came into the call hot, failed to de-escalate and ended up shooting the young man when he really did not pose a threat.

The Washington Post on Sunday presented their own story.  Most of the time, when we see fatal shootings of people by the police, someone will inevitably push back—“if only they didn’t resist arrest” or “if only they listened and complied with police orders.”

If only it were that simple.  The case described in the Post describes a woman “diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia,” and says, “Amid screaming and rustling sounds, police officers smash the windows on her red Nissan, Taser her twice, punch her in the face more than a dozen times and try to pull her out by her hair.”

The woman—transitioning from a man—was anchored to the car, locked in by a seat belt.

Writes the Post, “Her life ends, as does the 911 call, when she tries to flee by driving away with one of the officers still inside the car. There’s a burst of gunfire, then an officer says: ‘We are all okay. Bad guy down.’”

The Post found that this death which occurred in Springfield, Oregon, “was one of 1,324 fatal shootings by police over the past six years that involved someone police said was in the throes of a mental health crisis — about a quarter of all fatal police shootings during that period, according to a Washington Post database.”

The Post writes, “Although the number of these fatalities has declined, these confrontations remain a deadly and vexing issue, especially in small and midsize metropolitan areas. A Post analysis shows fatal police shootings of those who are mentally ill are more likely to take place in areas with populations of fewer than 1 million, like Springfield, which is part of a metropolitan area of about 382,000.”

The Post found that such shootings are 39 percent more likely in small to medium areas than in large metro areas or rural areas.  Places like Davis and Walnut Creek.

I have spoken to a lot of police officers, and they don’t like these cases either.

The Post notes, “For police, encounters with mentally ill people can be especially challenging because their behavior is often frantic and unpredictable. They can be in a state of psychosis, making it impossible for them to follow regular police commands. The encounters also can be dangerous, the Post database shows, because in most cases the mentally ill person is armed with a gun or knife.”

In the Davis case, he had a knife.  In Walnut Creek, a sharp crow bar.

So why have large departments made more progress?

The Post writes that “some departments, mostly in larger metropolitan areas, have made progress. Larger police departments with bigger budgets have moved more quickly to embrace training in de-escalation skills. Those departments are also more likely to dedicate resources to refresher training and to work as a team with local mental health professionals, experts said.”

In our view there is another way—the CAHOOTS model.  Smaller communities would have to partner with other cities in their county for such services, but it is a model that works.

In Eugene, Oregon, the White Bird Clinic’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) has been operating since 1989 with very good results.

Administrators with CAHOOTS said they don’t see their teams as replacing police, but doing things police were not adequately trained to do.

“What we hear again and again from law enforcement is that they are tired of being the defacto mental-health response,” CAHOOTS’ administrative coordinator Ben Brubaker told the LA Daily News in June. “They are tired of picking up the pieces of our behavioral-health and physical-health systems.”

The Daily News reported: “Last year, CAHOOTS, on a $2.1 million city-funded budget, handled 24,000 calls, 20 percent of the 911 calls for Eugene and Springfield.”

Here is the remarkable thing—24,000 calls last year, only 150 police backups.

They estimate the city of Eugene saved $8.5 million per year from would-be police responses, and millions more on other calls that would have gone to the fire department or EMT services.

That’s a lot of money, but at the end of the day it’s those 24,000 calls for service with only 150 police backups that rings true.  That’s a huge number of police encounters with potentially dangerous mentally ill people that simply don’t occur.

The Post reports that this year “nearly 20 percent of fatal shootings involve someone who has mental health problems. The incidents often involve drugs or alcohol. Almost all of the decline in fatal shootings of the mentally ill happened in large metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    So why have large departments made more progress?

    Lots more mentally-ill people (e.g., on the streets), in those locations. They generally haven’t been “welcomed” in the suburbs.


      1. David Greenwald

        It would be better if you waited outside of the five minute mark before responding. In this case, I realized I misread your comment, but you had already commented by the time I realized it.

  2. Eric Gelber

    In our view there is another way—the CAHOOTS model.

    The CAHOOTS model is an additional way, rather than “another” way. Implementing the CAHOOTS or other similar model in no way diminishes the need to devote adequate resources to the training of all law enforcement personnel who may encounter situations requiring deescalation.

      1. Eric Gelber

        Problem is, it’s not always apparent in advance that a call or encounter involves someone with a mental health issue. There may be a report of a domestic disturbance, for example, and the police may not know until they arrive on the scene that it involves someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Or they may happen upon a situation in which it’s not possible to call for CAHOOTS involvement in time to intervene. All armed law enforcement need to be trained to handle such situations. CAHOOTS is not a panacea.

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