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JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDES BY LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS:

What Is the Role of Mental Illness?

A Joint Report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs' Association

Executive Summary

As a consequence of the failed mental illness treatment system, an increasing number of individuals with untreated serious mental illness are encountering law enforcement officers, sometimes with tragic results. “Justifiable homicides,” in which an individual is killed by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty, may occur when criminals are being pursued, as in a bank robbery, or when an officer is threatened with a weapon, in other situations.

We assessed available data on justifiable homicides between 1980 and 2008 and found the following:

  • Although the total number of justifiable homicides decreased by 5% between 1980 and 2008, those resulting from an attack on a law enforcement officer increased by 67%, from an average of 153 to 255 such homicides per year.
  • Although no national data is collected, multiple informal studies and accounts support the conclusion that “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”
  • There are suggestions that many of the mentally ill individuals who were shot were not taking their medications. Some of them were also well-known to the law enforcement officers from previous encounters.
  • Studies suggest that approximately one-third of the shootings by law enforcement officers results from the victim attempting to commit “suicide-by-cop.”
  • The transfer of responsibility for persons with mental illness from mental health professionals to law enforcement officers is both illogical and unfair and harms both the patients and the officers.

In view of these conditions, it is recommended that:

  • The Department of Justice resolve to collect more complete and detailed information on justifiable homicides.
  • Mental health agencies be clearly assigned the ultimate responsibility for the care of persons with mental illness in their communities and held accountable for providing it.
  • More widespread use be made of assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) under which at-risk individuals who meet criteria established by the state are court-ordered to remain in treatment as a condition of living in the community – in the 45 states where it is authorized.
  • The five states without AOT laws on their books (Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Tennessee) enact and use them.

See the references cited in this study.

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