Atlantic Cities

Think Twice Before Asking Police to Deal With the Mentally Ill

Think Twice Before Asking Police to Deal With the Mentally Ill
REUTERS

By now, you've probably heard the sad story of Keith Vidal. Here's the short version: Over the weekend, 18-year-old Vidal, resident of Boling Springs Lakes, North Carolina, threatened his mother with a screwdriver during a schizophrenic episode. His mother called the police for help. Two officers restrained Vidal, who reportedly weighed between 90 and 100 pounds. A third officer arrived at the house and shot the teenager dead. 

I've seen two quotes in the press on why the officer killed Vidal, and both are pretty upsetting. Upon seeing his men restraining Vidal, the third officer reportedly said, "I don't have time for this. Tase him. Let's get him out of here." Vidal was Tased, and then for some reason, he was shot by the third, more senior officer. When asked by Vidal's parents why he killed their son, the officer allegedly said, "Well, I’m protecting my officers."

The state has opened an investigation. The Vidal family is understandably devastated. The police had come to the house before to speak to Keith, and had always been able to calm him down without hurting him.

There's a lesson here, and it's that you, me, everybody should think very carefully before asking law enforcement to help us deal with a mentally troubled friend or family member. There's no national dataset we can rely on, but a spate of recent stories suggest that police responses to the mentally ill and disabled are erratic at best. Consider these recent stories:

  • Someone calls the Fullerton, California, police to report a schizophrenic homeless man named Kelly Thomas possibly breaking into cars. The unarmed Thomas is beaten into a coma by six officers, and dies a day later. (The trial of two of the officers is finishing up now.) 
  • A woman calls Dallas Police to report that her schizophrenic son needs medical attention. Officers arrive to find the man standing in the street holding a knife, and shoot him in the stomach. (The officer has since been fired for violating the Dallas PD's use of force policy.)  
  • A movie theater that uses off-duty police officers working as security guards tried to eject a man with Downs Syndrome for trying to watch a movie twice without paying for the second screening. The man's caretaker had gone to retrieve the car when officers attempted to eject Ethan Saylor. They ended up choking him to death.

There's no way to know how many times officers respond to calls involving the mentally ill or the mentally disabled without doing any harm. I'm sure it happens quite a bit. The problem is that there's no guarantee your call will go well. Once you introduce police officers into these situations, you've dramatically increased the likelihood of violent force. This week, Jeff Deeney, a Philadelphia social worker and Atlantic contributor, explained the risks of asking police to deal with a mental health situation, and what he does to mitigate the likelihood of violence or a death:

"This idea that cops are always at your beck and call is the basis of the 911 system and it doesn’t work," former Baltimore cop and John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Peter Moskos recently told ThinkProgress's Nicole Flatow. "When you call the police, you have to remember what cops do is arrest people. If you don’t want to be arrested, you probably shouldn’t call the police."

Top image: Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas shows the jury an image of Fullerton police trying to subdue Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton Transportation Center. REUTERS/Bruce Chambers/Pool

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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