Police and People With Mental Illness: Why is It Important for Police Officers to Understand Mental Health Issues?

Misty Castillo left her home in Salem, Oregon one summer night and called 911, requesting police assistance, because she said her mentally ill son was beating her and her husband with a knife.

Castillo emphasised her son’s mental illness by telling the emergency operator, “He’s drunk and he’s high and he’s mentally ill.” Arcadio Castillo III was shot dead by police less than five minutes later as he stood “fixed like a deer in headlights,” according to his mother.

He did not attempt to soothe him. Castillo claimed, “He just walked in here and shot my son.

There is a massive data vacuum in the United States about the number of times police have killed persons who were having a mental health crisis.

The Department of Justice must collect and disclose data on how often federal, state, and local officers use force, how often those uses result in fatalities, and how often the deceased had a mental condition per the 21st Century Cures Act, which was approved by Congress with bipartisan majorities in 2016. However, departments are not required to report officer fatalities to the Department of Justice.

The FBI does its best to compile these records, but in the first quarter of this year, it calculated that just 40 per cent of all sworn law enforcement agencies supplied use-of-force data. The amount of participation required to warrant policy changes is much higher than that.

Arcadio’s parents tried to get him into a mental health facility, but the system isn’t what it could be. He had not been diagnosed or committed in the weeks leading up to his death.

Another system breakdown and fatality on the other side of the country, this time in West Virginia.

Matt Jones, who was armed with a revolver while standing in the middle of the road, was experiencing a severe manic episode. A constant stream of police cars with their sirens blaring could be heard. On July 6 in the Bradley neighbourhood, a bystander filmed the unfolding events. In a flurry of gunfire, Jones was killed after an officer fired a shot.

Dreamer Marquis, the man’s fiancee, said he was having delusions and hallucinations because he had run out of his medication and was unable to acquire a refill.

He needed assistance badly, Marquis remarked. “He understood he required the medication to live a regular life because he would have manic episodes that would get him into problems if he didn’t take it.”

It is undeniable, according to those who advocate for people with mental illness, that they are at a higher risk of mortality in the event of an interaction with police.

NAMI’s chief advocacy officer Hannah Wesolowski said the deaths of Castillo and Jones “show a wider systemic problem that we have in helping people who are dealing with mental health or are in a mental health crisis.”

Nearly 130 million people in the United States live in a region with a scarcity of mental health doctors, and many towns lack a mental health crisis infrastructure, she said.

She explained that calling the police is often the only option when someone is acting erratically due to their symptoms, which can have tragic consequences. By waiting until a crisis occurs, “I think we are failing people far earlier in the process.”

A nationwide hotline for mental health emergencies, 988, launched in July, which she hailed as a breakthrough.

Wesolowski remarked that while the crisis was “actually pushing this construction of a crisis system,” it would take years to implement. In regards to rethinking how the United States handles crises, I believe we are closer to the beginning than the end.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 19.7% of adult Americans are living with some form of mental illness. Despite this, a 2015 analysis by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with law enforcement than other people approached by law enforcement.

According to Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, of the 85 people shot dead by police in Portland between 1975 and 2020, 72% were impacted by mental illness, drugs, alcohol, or a combination thereof. Oftentimes, physical and mental health problems are inextricably linked, but the organisation does not have statistics on the former. Methamphetamine, for instance, has been linked to long-term psychosis in users.

The federal government filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland in 2012 due to the Portland Police Bureau’s excessive use of force against those who suffer from mental illness. The data submitted in federal court found that since then, the use of force against the mentally challenged has increased.

According to Renaud, all 25 victims shot and killed by law enforcement in the Portland metro region since 2012 had either a mental illness or a substance misuse condition, or both.

A spokeswoman for the Portland Police Bureau, Lt. Nathan Sheppard, denied knowing such figures. He stressed the fact that all police officers in Portland go through crisis response training. Law enforcement and the behavioural health system’s responses to people experiencing crises due to mental illness or substance abuse are coordinated by a new section within the department.

However, Sheppard stated that more needs to be done to address the “public health emergency that has existed for decades in which services and therapy are not widely available or easily accessible for individuals in need of mental health treatment.”

More proactive, appropriate, individual-person-centred approaches are needed to help those with mental illness, Sheppard argued.

Arcadio Castillo III’s mother has filed a federal lawsuit against the officer who killed her son and the city of Salem for failing to use crisis intervention tactics and training before resorting to deadly force. The incident occurred on July 9, 2021.

The shooting was deemed legal by the grand jury. The Marion County prosecutor’s office stated that Arcadio charged toward the officer, who was not equipped with a body camera, with the knife in a stabbing posture.

Police and People With Mental Illness
Police and People With Mental Illness

He had never done anything like that before. Arcadio’s mother recalled as she stood over the living room floor where her son had been shot four times, “He never rushed him.” She said, “We feel violated because someone who is supposed to serve and protect us during a moment of difficulty took away my child.”

Arcadio’s mother said that the anxiety he had been experiencing since he was a teenager only got worse when he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and given Ritalin by mental health professionals in Marion County. To alleviate his stress, he started abusing substances. Castillo claims that a caseworker at a psychiatric crisis centre told him that Arcadio’s heavy drug and alcohol use prevented her from making a diagnosis.

Castillo said that when Arcadio’s parents tried to have him committed to a mental hospital, they were told: “he wasn’t sick enough to be committed.” The following week he was murdered.

She explained that she was at her wit’s end because “he just wasn’t getting the right diagnosis, treatment, or medication that he desperately needed” and that her son’s anxiety continued to worsen.

The urn containing Arcadio’s remains is a teardrop shape and is kept on the mantel of the family’s rental home. His mom is going to have a portion of his ashes made into cremation necklaces to give to his family and friends.

Before Jones’ loved ones knew he was dead, a video of the West Virginia murder spread online.

His sister-in-law, Nicole Jones, was browsing Facebook when she saw a video of a man with red shoulder-length hair being chased by at least eight armed police officers. When confronted by police, he raised his arms above his head and retreated, one hand on the revolver. He momentarily raised the weapon to his head.

Jones’s heart sank as she identified the man as her husband’s brother based on his gait and the way he swept his hair over his shoulder when he shook his head.

The report from the state police investigation into the incident has been forwarded to Raleigh County Prosecutor Ben Hatfield, who will decide if deadly force was necessary. Hatfield claimed that just before he shot Matt Jones, Jones carjacked at least one vehicle.

For nearly twenty years, he had been in and out of prison. Mark Jones, Matt’s brother, claimed the family always knew he had problems, even if he was a baseball and wrestling star. His parents sought therapy for him and looked into drug options.

Matt established a tree- and landscaping-service firm, but he frequently ran afoul of the law for things like driving under the influence and without a licence. According to his relatives, most of his charges originate from him breaking the terms of his probation.

While incarcerated, Matt’s bipolar disorder was identified and treated successfully with medication. But he fell into a rut in which he repeatedly ran across barriers to treatment, experienced mental health crises, and then was jailed.

He stayed for a while at the Culpeper, Virginia, home of his brother and sister-in-law. Nicole Jones has fond memories of the time he spent on the tyre swing with her children. However, he eventually started having sleep problems and claimed to hear voices. After he sought the counsellor for assistance in making an appointment with a psychiatrist, he never heard back from her.

Matt’s fiancée reported he started crying because he was out of medicines a few weeks before he passed away.

Matt was not a licenced driver. Wherever he had put his birth certificate and Social Security card was no longer there. According to Marquis, this made it challenging to keep medical appointments. The couple did end up at a walk-in clinic that treated patients without identification, but they left after eight hours because of the long wait.

Mark Jones, a landscaper, witnessed the shooting of his brother while at work.

What was he thinking? I was trying to figure it out,” he explained. What keeps coming back to me is that he was always lost and desperately seeking assistance.

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