Miami police officers responding to a 911 call found two men sitting in the street. One was holding an unknown shiny object. The other man put his hands up, but the man holding the object ignored police commands. An officer fired a gun at him, but the shot missed its intended target and hit the other man in the leg. 

The shiny object turned out to be a silver toy truck. The man holding it was autistic, and the man with him—the one who was shot—was a behavioral therapist who was trying to calm him down. Individuals on the autism spectrum, which includes a range of developmental disabilities, are at high risk for mental health crises

The officer who fired the shot, and who was probably not adequately trained to understand what was happening, was ultimately convicted of culpable negligence. The shooting victim was hospitalized and recovered from his wound.  

This was an unfortunate incident, but it could’ve been far worse. 

How Does Law Enforcement Handle Mental Health Issues? 
Salt Lake City police officers responding to a call that a juvenile had been threatening people with a weapon encountered a 13-year-old boy. When the boy ran, he was shot multiple times by police. No weapon was found on him. The boy’s mother said she had called for emergency assistance in taking her son, who had Asperger’s syndrome, to a hospital during a mental health crisis. The boy survived the shooting but has lasting health issues. 

The incident led a former Salt Lake City police chief to state, “If we cannot respond, as a police agency, to a 13-year-old child who has autism, without shooting him, I don’t know if we should be in this business.” 

A Killeen, Texas, family called police requesting a mental health professional when a member of the family, Patrick Warren Sr., was experiencing a mental health crisis. No officer with mental health training was available, and a police officer responded to the family’s call. When the officer arrived, Warren emerged from his house, and when he failed to comply with the officer’s order to “sit down,” the officer fatally shot him. Warren was unarmed. 

According to one report, nearly 25% of all suspects killed by police in 2020 were diagnosed as having a serious mental illness. A look back to five years prior shows similar results, with one quarter of people shot dead by police in the first half of the year alone having been “in the throes of mental or emotional crisis.” Another report stated that people suffering from mental illness are “16 times more likely” to be killed by law enforcement than suspects who don’t have mental health issues.  

Mental illness isn’t the only root cause of mental health crises, however. People with developmental disabilities and individuals going through a tough time, even without any underlying conditions, may also have mental health episodes. These cases need to be treated with great sensitivity. Too often, however, law enforcement handles mental health issues with potentially deadly force. Outcomes for these incidents could improve drastically if officers understood that they were dealing with a person who was experiencing a mental health crisis.  

There’s no question that law enforcement is a dangerous profession, with police officers forced to make life-or-death decisions quickly and in hazardous circumstances. There have been numerous documented cases of police officers being injured or killed by mentally ill suspects. However, the number of suspects killed by police could be significantly decreased if some key changes are made to law enforcement protocols. 

What’s Needed for Change 
Deadly incidents have prompted a widespread call for increased mental health training for police officers, most of whom aren’t currently qualified to handle suspects with mental health problems. Some believe that law enforcement shouldn’t be dealing with such individuals at all. This underscores the need for a twofold approach to the problem: 

More Training 
Some reports show police receive only eight hours of crisis intervention training. Those publicly calling for expanded training include police chiefschiefs of staff to police commissioners, and high-profile public policy organizations. Yet, as of June 2020, an average of only 16% of police departments nationwide were using Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs), which utilize mental health professionals. Still, CIT is becoming a “model for police interactions in crisis situations involving persons in the community with mental, emotional, or developmental challenges.” 

More Alternatives 
Not everyone agrees police should be the first responders to emergency calls. The city of Eugene, Oregon has begun to handle non-criminal calls that come into 911 in a different way. Instead of sending police, the city sends mental health workers as part of a program it calls CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). During 2019, the CAHOOTS team requested law enforcement assistance on less than 1% of the calls to which it responded. 

Our Online Degree Programs Can Help 
The University of Texas Permian Basin offers online bachelor’s degree programs that can help you perform to your potential in a criminal justice career. By developing a better understanding of the behavior and motivations of the people you interact with, you’ll gain a critical tool in avoiding unnecessary use of force. 

Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies 
Our program prepares you to protect and serve your community as you work toward positive changes to the criminal justice system from the inside. You’ll examine topics including the use of force by police and the control of police behavior. 

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology 
Build a broad foundation of psychological science knowledge through an emphasis on crucial written communication and research skills beneficial in helping professions and beyond. You’ll explore topics such as abnormal psychology, social psychology, and positive psychology. 

Online Learning Convenience  
We offer all of the courses for these programs in an asynchronous, 100% online format that enables you to earn a valuable credential on your own schedule, practically anywhere, while keeping up with your professional and personal duties. Many courses last just eight weeks, and you’ll learn from the same respected faculty who teach these courses on the UT Permian Basin campus.  

Individuals with mental health issues continue to be killed by police in tragic misunderstandings. The right training can help prevent such incidents. An online Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies or Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from UT Permian Basin is a good place to start.