Recent deaths highlight concerns over officer response

Recent deaths highlight concerns over officer response

Walter Wallace Jr., Ricardo Muñoz and Angelo Quinto were all experiencing a mental health episode when they were killed by the police officers their families called for help. Their deaths, along with many other similar cases, are once again highlighting concerns about whether law enforcement is equipped to handle such crises.

More than 1 in 5 people fatally shot by police have a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal U.S. shootings by an on-duty police officer. Since 2015, when the Post launched its database, police have fatally shot more than 1,400 people with mental illnesses.

Angela Kimball, with the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), said she believes these numbers are so staggering because a person in the midst of a mental health crisis does not always respond in ways officers want them to.

“Police are trained to respond to a situation with a goal of protecting public safety and their own safety,” she said. “They are used to using interventions that are designed to contain somebody that is perceived as a danger.”

Juan Rios, a professor and director of the Master of Social Work Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said the statistics are higher for Black men than other major demographics.

Last month the journal Annals of Epidemiology posted an analysis that said police are more likely to shoot and kill unarmed Black men who are showing signs of a mental illness compared to white men exhibiting similar behaviors.

According to Rios, this is partly because Black men are least likely to receive treatment for an active mental health diagnosis compared to other major demographics. Males between the ages of 18 and 27 are also less likely to be treated, he said.

“You intersect all of those factors and you have Black young men who are most at risk who may not be in treatment,” Rios explained. “And the reality is also Black men are more likely to be deemed as a threat than any other demographic.”

Families calling for help

Kimball said that during mental health crises, the presence of a police officer, coupled with the uniform and shouting, is quite often “counter-intuitive” and can lead to tragedy.

Angelo Quinto died in December, days after an incident involving Antioch, California, officers. His family had called the police for help because he was experiencing an episode of paranoia, according to a wrongful death claim.

By the time officers arrived, Quinto’s mother had been able to calm him down. She was holding him in her arms when the officers took him away from her and laid Quinto on his stomach, the complaint states.

One officer crossed Quinto’s leg behind him while the other placed his knee on Quinto’s neck for more than four minutes, according to the complaint. Quinto “became lifeless” and was taken to the hospital where he died on Dec. 26.

Antioch Police Chief Tammany Brooks has denied that officers used a knee or anything else to put pressure on his neck.

Quinto’s mother, Maria Quinto-Collins, told reporters that police’s handling of the situation was “absolutely unnecessary.”

“I trusted the police because I thought they knew what they were doing but he was actually passive and visibly not dangerous or a threat,” she said at a February press conference.

Ricardo Muñoz was fatally shot by Lancaster, Pennsylvania, police in September after his sister called for help saying he had become aggressive.

In the audio of a 911 call played at a press conference, Muñoz’s sister told the dispatcher that he was schizophrenic and bipolar and asked that officials take him to the hospital.

When an officer arrived at the home, Muñoz exited with what authorities described as a hunting knife.

Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said at a news conference that Muñoz “immediately, and without warning, charged the officer.” The officer “ran for his life” and four seconds later fired, killing Muñoz.

The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing, with Adams saying that the officer responded as he had been trained and met “deadly force with deadly force.”

Ricardo’s sister questioned why there was not a different standard for people suffering a mental health crisis.

“The right person should have been there,” Rulennis Muñoz previously told NBC News. “The first responder needs to be someone like a caseworker, someone who knows how to deal with this situation so the cops wouldn’t be the first person to approach.”

Muñoz’s death echoes the October killing of Walter Wallace Jr., who was fatally shot by Philadelphia police responding to a call about a mental health crisis.

Anthony Fitzhugh, Wallace’s cousin, previously told NBC News that the family knew how to pacify the 27-year-old when he was having an episode.

But on Oct. 26, they called 911 to request an ambulance in hopes that Wallace, who was bipolar, would receive medical intervention. A police officer arrived at the home first.

The incident was captured on cellphone video and police body camera footage and shows Wallace, a father of eight children, fatally shot in front of his mother and neighbors.

In the police camera video, an officer yelled for Wallace to “put the knife down now” as the man walked down his front steps with an object in his hand. As Wallace walked across the street still holding what appeared to be a knife, the officer fired multiple rounds.

Police previously said that Wallace was ordered “several times” to drop the knife but he continued to “advance towards” them. Officers fired “multiple times,” hitting Wallace in the chest and shoulder, the department said.

Wallace, who was Black, was pronounced dead at a hospital. The officers involved in the shooting have been reassigned to restrictive duty pending the outcome of an investigation, the department said.

Wallace’s family has denounced police for using deadly force, saying that his wife had relayed his mental health struggles to police at the scene before he was shot. The family’s attorney, Shaka Johnson, criticized the officer’s handling of a mental health call.

The ‘Memphis Model’

Many law enforcement agencies use the “Memphis Model” for crisis intervention training (CIT). According to its website, it was developed in 1987 after Memphis, Tennessee, police officers fatally shot a man who was threatening people with a knife. The man, who was Black, had a history of mental illness.

The death sparked outrage in Memphis and calls for a better way to intervene when someone is in the midst of a mental health episode.

Kimball said the program requires about 40 hours of training on mental health diagnoses, drug use issues and de-escalation tactics. There are currently more than 2,700 CIT sites around the country.

“It’s really more of a concept of community engagement. Part of it is about law enforcement developing those connections with homeless shelters and with community mental health systems like hospitals so that everybody is working together,” Kimball said.

While the training is crucial for law enforcement, it is “a workaround for a system that shouldn’t be sending law enforcement to a call for a mental health crisis,” she added.

Seton Hall professor Rios said he agrees.

“When we look at why folks are … more likely to die at the hands of police officers, it’s that their training focuses more on marksmanship than it does on mental health support or crisis work,” he said. “A badge and gun should not be the first one to address a non-violent mental health crisis call.”

Rios along with his colleague, Tom Shea, are trying to counter that by working with communities on 911 divergence so that in non-violent situations, people can call a mental health professional before they call the police.

Rios said to achieve this, they will provide community-based training on deconstructing stigmas.

“Oftentimes what happens is our own implicit biases says that if there’s a Black man whose in distress or in crisis he must be on drugs, versus a white person who is in distress or in crisis needs help,” he said.

“So we’re looking to educate the community on being more cognitively flexible about who is in distress, who needs help and how to access resources.”

Rios and Shea are working with communities in South Orange, New Jersey with plans to expand their project elsewhere.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally designated 988 as a nationwide number for mental health crisis and suicide prevention services. The number is set to go live in July 2022.

The FCC said that making 988 the go-to number for suicide prevention and mental health crises calls “will make it easier for Americans in crisis to access the help they need.”

Kimball said the number will be a great alternative to 911 because “there’s a mobile crisis team of behavioral health professionals who can help defuse the situation, connect people to treatment, and get them on a path to recovery.”

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