Police departments are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill, a Department of Justice review has found.
The DOJ has been looking into policing practices regarding minorities and use of force, but according to The Associated Press, one consistent problem identified by the feds has been the way law enforcement handles and interacts with people who have mental health issues.
The result is that police end up in "unnecessarily violent confrontations" with mentally ill people, even if the latter haven't committed any crimes.
"Through the course of our work in the last several years on this bucket of issues, we've seen how important it is to get at the mental health issues as early in the system as possible," Vanita Gupta, head of the department's Civil Rights Division, told AP.
DOJ officials said they've identified the need for more and improved training so officers know how to interact with the mentally ill and get them the help they need. Police forces should be better integrated with mental health resources, Gupta said, and authorities must take steps to make sure mentally ill patients are placed in care instead of in jail or prison.
Regarding the latter problem, 31 percent of male prison inmates and 14 percent of female inmates have some form of mental illness, according to the DOJ official Eve Hill.
That isn't entirely the fault of the police, according to federal officials. They cited the need for better support structures so that the mentally ill are cared for instead of winding up in the criminal justice system.
"From the standpoint of police, they are somewhat frustrated because many of the people who are walking the streets and who are in need of help are not getting it," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told AP. "They have been out on the streets, they can't afford medication, and so the police wind up being the only one they come in contact with."
The DOJ's review found that police officers in Baltimore, Maryland, for example, use unnecessary force, including stun guns and pepper spray, to deal with the mentally ill. In Seattle, police were criticized for using force instead of working to de-escalate situations and deal properly with mentally unstable people. In Cleveland, in addition to using stun guns on people with "limited cognitive abilities," police used a stun gun on a man who didn't follow their instructions -- even though he was deaf and may not have understood what they were telling him to do.
And in Mississippi, federal officials faulted the state for not providing resources to mentally ill adults, leading to confrontations and unnecessary institutionalization, The Clarion-Ledger reported.
Gupta said the solution is to work with police to improve training and cooperation with mental health authorities.
"It's not about casting blame on specific actors," she said. "It's about making sure that there is adequate support for community-based mental health services in compliance with federal law."