The shooting of Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California, is just the most recent in a string of police shootings of primarily men of color with mental illness or disability. Just last week, police in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot and killed Keith Scott, a 43-year-old father of seven who reportedly had suffered a traumatic brain injury during a motorcycle accident in 2015. In July, a police officer in North Miami contends he mistakenly shot an African-American behavioral therapist, Charles Kinsey, when he was aiming for Arnaldo Rios Soto, a 26-year-old autistic man. We speak to John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. He is co-author of a recent study that found people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to bring into this conversation John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. He’s co-author of a recent study that found people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians. The report is titled “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters.”
John Snook, welcome to Democracy Now! So can you talk about what happened to Olango in the context of what your report found, the way in which police respond to emergency calls having to do with the mentally ill?
JOHN SNOOK: Sure. This is really the nightmare scenario for families with a loved one who has a mental illness, and for law enforcement themselves. These are the sort of situations that we really work every day to prevent. Unfortunately, this seems to have ended in the worst-case scenario. And as we’ve seen around the country with the data, it happens far too often.
And I think one of the things we need to think about is this idea of: When someone is having a medical emergency, why are we requiring law enforcement to step in? Why don’t we have a mental health system that addresses these folks before these situations happen? And again, we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re having to say, “Law enforcement, you need to address this person’s needs,” because they aren’t mental health professionals. They haven’t been trained.
And San Diego has stepped in with a program that’s called PERT. It provides basically for a co-responder, who is a psychiatric professional, to come along on some of these calls. But obviously that didn’t happen in this case, and it can’t happen in every case. So we really need to step back and say, “How do we keep law enforcement from having to be on the front lines to be our mental health responders?” and say, “How do we get mental health professionals more involved in these cases?”
AMY GOODMAN: What’s so frightening here is it sounds like Mr. Olango’s sister did everything right. She called up. She said her brother was having a mental health emergency. She called several times. Not only did they send the police, but they waited 50 minutes. Now, if someone wants to report a mental health emergency, which could save other people, what kind of message is sent when you do this and you simply—basically, the message is sent: If you call to help the mentally ill, we will kill you, or we will kill them.
JOHN SNOOK: Well, I think it’s important to step back. And if you think about mental illness like any other illness, and you said, “This person was having a heart attack. Let’s call the police,” we wouldn’t be surprised that bad outcomes happen, because that’s simply not what a police officer is there for. What we need to do is get away from this situation where we wait until someone is in a crisis before we provide care.
I think California has taken some steps, but even as we’ve been talking about this, there’s been a broad discussion in California about misuse of the Prop 63 funds, which are funds that ostensibly were to be provided to mental health. And the Little Hoover Commission just put out another report that said, unfortunately, those funds aren’t being used for mental health in the way that they should be. The tracking isn’t there.
And that’s what we’re talking about, is these situations, we have far too many people ending up not getting care until they’re in a crisis, and then we wonder why bad outcomes happen. And, unfortunately, that’s the case across the country. We simply have too many people in crisis, law enforcement trying to do their best in the worst-case scenarios, and that’s when these sort of tragedies occur.
AMY GOODMAN: We are now talking about, according to the figures in Mapping Police Violence, Mr. Olango became the 217th black American to be killed by police so far this year. Ultimately, John Snook, the most important recommendation you have at this point, as we see what happened from El Cajon to Tulsa to Charlotte?
JOHN SNOOK: I think it’s quite simple: We have to take mental illness seriously. Before this year, we basically weren’t even able to really provide a very effective number of how many people with mental illness were killed by law enforcement officers. We know, across the country, that people with a mental illness are languishing in jails and emergency rooms, because we simply don’t have enough hospital beds for them. We simply aren’t taking mental illness seriously.
Finally, we’re starting to see some movement. There’s a bill on the Hill that’s waiting for Senate action that would address these sorts of incidents, these issues with the most severely mentally ill, provide additional funding for police training, provide care for folks before they get to this point. Unfortunately, that’s still sitting in Congress. That’s the sort of thing that we need done. We need to have people recognize that this is a crisis that our nation is facing, and, unless we do more, we’re going to keep having these sort of incidents happen.
AMY GOODMAN: John Snook, we want to thank you for being with us, of the Treatment Advocacy Center, joining us from Washington. Dan Gilleon, attorney for the family of Alfred Olango, the unarmed African-American man who was shot and killed Tuesday by the El Cajon police just outside San Diego, Dan also representing the officer Christine Greer, the plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Richard Gonsalves, the officer who killed Mr. Olango. And thank you so much to Christopher Rice-Wilson, associate director at Alliance San Diego.
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