Commentary

Police officers with untreated mental illness are the real danger

February 25, 2021 1:16 pm

A sign at the protest again police brutality against Black people in Scottsdale on June 7, 2020. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

Johnny Law is deathly afraid of mental illness. And that fear creates a threat to the public: Police officers with untreated mental health issues remaining on duty.

And I can’t help but think that an officer’s assessment of a person’s mental health is more salient than race during stressful situations — and that it explains the reason police officers shoot people with mental disorders and Black people more frequently than any others.   

Johnny Law’s stressors and prejudices against people who embody the marginalized intersection of mental health, race, gender and socioeconomic status influences his mental perception and sudden propensity for use of non-lethal or deadly force. 

And there’s no amount of bias or mental health crisis training that will change an officer’s racial biases and fear of mental illness.

Research shows 50% of people killed by police live with a mental illness. Those living with treated mental disorders are four times more likely to be fatally shot by the police. And Johnny Law is 16 times more likely to use lethal force against people living with an untreated mental disorder. Race also transforms people into targets.  

Police violence is a leading cause of death among Black men, who are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Johnny Law will kill one in 100,000 Black men and boys in a lifetime. 

The way I see it, that means Black men with an untreated mental disorder are 40 times more likely to be executed by the police.  

Paranoia, insufficient adaptability and the police force’s code of silence lead to alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health challenges and suicide among officers. 

Police candidates go through a recruitment process that includes a psychological test. But the test is not designed to examine the candidate’s mental health. Instead, the test examines the personality traits of the applicants and determines whether they are suitable for the high-risk profession.

Once a police officer is hired, they are generally only ordered to meet with a department psychologist after a fatal shooting. Practically speaking, a police officer can go his or her whole career without a psych evaluation. 

But ethical dilemmas abound for the psychologists working with police departments.  

It is difficult for the psychologist to maintain professional standards and meet the police department’s needs. If they diagnose an officer with a mental health disorder, it could lead to suspension or job loss. Their working relationship’s ethical dilemmas place Johnny Law’s life and public safety in danger. 

There is ample evidence that a police officer’s daily exposure to stressful scenarios and the worst elements of society lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Nationwide, reports state 15% of police live with PTSD. Law enforcement officers also commit domestic violence at high rates, with one study finding that 40% of police families experience domestic violence, between two and four times the rate in the general public. More than one in five police officers use alcohol to cope with the physical and mental demands of the job. 

Studies show the police profession is at a higher risk for mental health episodes than any other profession. Police officers are subjected to physical injuries, deaths and high stress situations on a daily basis leading to 17 out of 100,000 police officers who take their lives. In 2019, 228 police died by suicide.  

Suicide is a product of mental disorders, firearms at home, violent behavior toward others, substance abuse, fatal shootings and homicide. But the failure to charge police officers after they fatally shoot an unarmed person with a mental illness or Black person is due to the inherent conflict of interest in the relationship between police and prosecutors.   

Having prosecutors investigate the police department is hardly different from the police investigating themselves. Prosecutors need police officers to investigate crimes, build cases and testify in court, and police officers rely on prosecutors to approve criminal charges in every case. Their relationship enforces the blue wall of silence, which manifests into a toxic masculine culture that believes officers seeking help from the chaplain or on-site psychologist are weak. 

It’s hard not to conclude that prosecutors give police officers every benefit of the doubt and pull their punches when it comes time to pursue criminal cases — decisions that enable even those officers battling mental illness to avoid all consequences when they act as judge, jury and executioner.

All too often, prosecutors conclude that officers who use lethal force are justified — and even if they don’t, they frequently don’t pursue charges because they fear losing at trial. And the police are bolstered by law-and-order, tough-on-crime (just not the white-collar kind) leaders like former President Donald Trump, who said police need “to take mentally deranged and dangerous people off the street.”

But the people with a mental illness are not the dangerous people on the street. Society’s lack of education and discourse feeds the irrational fear of people who continue to suffer. The “dangerous people” who need to be taken off the street are the police officers with untreated mental illness. 

If we do that, to borrow Trump’s own words, we “won’t have to worry so much about them” continuing to kill more people living with mental illness or unarmed Black people.

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Rashaad Thomas
Rashaad Thomas

Rashaad Thomas is a United States Air Force Veteran, freelance writer and poet who lives in south Phoenix. He was named Best Poet by Phoenix New Times in 2019. His work can be found in the book "Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong," The Rumpus, Heart Journal Online, Columbia Poetry Review and others.

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