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Police Encounters Gone Wrong Draw Attention to Mental Health Issues

Police Encounters Gone Wrong Draw Attention to Mental Health Issues

Jennifer Sarrett

Security, Americas

People with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions—particularly in a high-stress situation.

After Shukri Ali Said left her house during a mental health crisis on April 23, 2018, her sister called 911 for help. Police found Said standing at an intersection holding a knife. Officers shot her five times in the neck and chest, killing her.

That same month, in New York, officers answered a 911 call about a black man waving something that looked like a gun. In fact, it was a pipe. But when Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father with mental illness who was well known in his Brooklyn community, pointed it at police, they shot him dead.

Vassell and Said are among the hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in the United States killed by police every year. According to The Washington Post, 142 of the 752 people shot by police so far in 2019 have had a mental illness.

Police are almost always the first responders in cases of mental health crises in the United States, as they are in criminal and medical emergencies.

But the police – who are trained to give orders and use force when they feel endangered – are generally ill-equipped to handle people with mental health challenges.

From Deinstitutionalization to Disarray

As a disability and ethics scholar who focuses on criminal justice, I know this country has long failed to justly and humanely care for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.

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