Mentally Ill or Homeless: Vulnerable to Police Abuse

Amnesty International USA

In Rights for All Amnesty International noted the problem of police using excessive force, including deadly force, against mentally ill or disturbed people who could have been subdued through less extreme measures. Further cases have been reported since then, including suicidal individuals shot by police after they had harmed themselves but not attacked other people. For example, in February 1999 Ricardo Clos is reported to have died after being shot at 38 times by Los Angeles sheriff's deputies who had responded to a call for help from his wife after he had cut himself in the neck. Police reportedly opened fire after he threw the knife towards them (missing them).^16^ In April 1999, a distraught man who had stabbed himself in the stomach was shot dead by police in San Jose, California, when he refused to put down the knife. In August 1999, Gidone Busch, a mentally ill man wielding a hammer, died after NYPD officers shot at him 12 times. The shooting led to protests in the local community, who questioned why the six officers at the scene could not have subdued him less violently.

There are incidents in which suicidal individuals have overtly provoked the police into shooting them, a phenomenon known as "suicide by cop". Several police killings in Colorado in 1999 appeared to fit this pattern. One was a young man reportedly upset by a recent break-up with his girlfriend who was shot dead in July when he ran towards an officer with a kitchen knife in his hand yelling "shoot me, shoot me".^17^ An officer from the same department shot and killed another disturbed man with a knife in March 1999 (these were the first shootings in the Northglen police department in five years). Many similar incidents have been reported across the USA.

The fatal shooting of Margaret Laverne Mitchell - a frail, mentally ill, homeless 55-year-old woman - by a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer in May 1999 caused particular local concern. Police said the officer shot Mrs Mitchell when she lunged at him with a screwdriver while he and another officer were questioning her about a shopping cart she was pushing.^18^ Amnesty International wrote to the LAPD in July expressing concern that the shooting was disproportionate to the threat posed and seeking information on whether the department has introduced any special measures for dealing with the mentally disturbed. No response had been received at the time of writing. The shooting is believed to remain under investigation.

Police officers are increasingly called upon to deal with mentally ill or emotionally disturbed individuals, a task which Amnesty International recognizes can be difficult and dangerous at times.^19^ Some police departments have introduced special programs to train officers to respond to such situations to reduce the incidence of unnecessary force or injury.

The NYPD has for some years had guidelines for dealing with mentally disturbed individuals, including specially trained officers in an Emergency Service Unit, although the adequacy of this scheme was questioned following the Gidone Busch shooting. According to a police spokesperson, the NYPD responded to 36,000 "Emotionally Disturbed Person" calls in 1998, roughly 100 a day on average, but only about 4,000 were handled by the Emergency Service Unit.^20^

According to studies, one of the most effective programs is the so-called "Memphis Plan" (first developed by the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee), in which teams of police officers (known as Crisis Intervention Teams) receive special training from mental health experts to deal with crisis situations and de-escalate any violence. The teams are dispatched to defuse situations and take mentally disturbed people to local mental health crisis centres rather than police stations. The Memphis Plan has been adopted by several police departments in recent years, including in Albuquerque (New Mexico), Portland (Oregon), Seattle (Washington) and Waterloo (Iowa). The Houston Police Department (Texas) started a pilot program in September 1999. At the time of writing, police agencies in Ventura County, California, were working with the Ventura County Mental Health Board to introduce the Memphis Plan in several of the county's cities, including Oxnard and Ventura.^21^ Similar proposals are under consideration in parts of Ohio and Florida. Anecdotal and other evidence indicates that the Memphis Plan has resulted in reductions in the use of deadly force and in injuries sustained by officers and civilians, as well as reductions in the use of restraints.^22^

According to a January 1999 survey of police departments in 194 US cities with a population of 100,000 or more, 78 had some form of special program for dealing with mentally or emotionally disturbed persons. However, 96 police departments (55% ) had no specialized response for dealing with such cases.^23^ Amnesty International is calling on all federal, state and local authorities to ensure that police training programs involve instruction for coping with emotionally or mentally disturbed individuals.

The Margaret Mitchell shooting is one of a series of cases in which homeless people have been reportedly subjected to excessive force or other cruel treatment for apparently minor violations. Amnesty International is concerned that legitimate measures by police to pursue "quality of life" initiatives by cracking down on misdemeanour or public order offences has led to some officers resorting to excessive force in situations in which homeless or disturbed people are particularly vulnerable. The organization is calling on police departments to ensure that all people are treated with respect for their basic human rights regardless of their status. Cases of concern include:

Lewis Rivera, a homeless man sitting eating in a Miami shopping mall in May 1999, was chased by five or six police officers who, according to eye-witnesses, sprayed him with pepper spray, kicked him, threw him to the ground and bound his hands and feet before dragging him to a police car. He died less than an hour later in a police holding cell. On hearing news of his death, one witness is reported to have said: "This was a skinny homeless guy who didn't have the force to be fighting police ... he was just sitting there ... the officers were in his face, speaking badly to him. I came back a minute later, and there were so many police cars, I thought it was a bank robbery...".^24^ He is the second homeless man in Miami reported to have died this year after being pepper sprayed and restrained by police: Rafael Perez Siberio died in February 1999 after a struggle with officers who were arresting him for jumping on cars and "acting crazy".^25^ Amnesty International has sought information on the outcome of official inquiries into both cases.

Other cases include the shooting of an unarmed "squeegee"^26^ man, Antoine Reid, by an off-duty NYPD officer in June 1998. The officer shot Reid in the chest, causing serious injury, after Reid had tried to wash his car windshield and refused to move on. The officer was acquitted of criminal charges of assault and reckless endangerment after a non-jury state trial in June 1999, but faced possible police disciplinary proceedings. In May 1998 two California Highway Patrol (CHIPS) officers pled no contest to state criminal charges of falsly imprisoning and threatening a homeless man who was washing car windshields: it was alleged that on three occasions they had taken him to remote locations, then abandoned him after pepper spraying him as punishment and subjecting him to other threats.

In July 1999 Amnesty International wrote to the authorities to express concern about reports about the fatal police shooting in June 1999 of an unarmed, homeless man during a confrontation with Alameda County sheriff's deputies. It is alleged that the man, who was pacing the sidewalk in tattered clothing, was shot after he continued to approach deputies after they ordered him to stand still. Amnesty International had not received a response to its inquiries about this case at the time of writing.^27^

^16^ Amnesty International wrote to the Sheriff's Department in this case, noting reports that the officers used their firearms only after first resorting to nonlethal weapons (bean bag bullets and pepper spray) but said it remained disturbed by the levels of force used against an apparently suicidal individual. AI drew attention to international standards which provide that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.

^17^ Reports in Denver Post August 1999

^18^ Many homeless people in and around Los Angeles carry their belongings in shopping carts or trolleys which are the property of grocery stores or businesses. There have reportedly been attempts by police to control this by issuing tickets, forcing people to remove their belongings from carts or even sending them to jail (e.g. Los Angeles Times July 14, 1998).

^19^ Increasing numbers of mentally ill and homeless people on the streets in US cities, due to the closure of long-stay hospitals, and in some areas cuts in community mental health provision, is well documented, as is the rise in mentally ill people going to jail or in prisons.

^20^ Reported in the New York Times, September 1, 1999

^21^ A Ventura County Mental Health Board spokesperson told Amnesty International that the measures were taken because of the relatively high rate of police shootings of disturbed individuals in the county in recent years, including "suicide by cop" incidents.

^22^ Memphis Police Crisis Intervention Team report, 1999, p. 11. Police-inflicted injuries to mental patients were reported to have been reduced by nearly 40% by 1992, since inception of the program by the Memphis Police Department in 1988, article in the Commercial Appeal, 4 June 1992.

^23^ Emerging Partnerships Between Mental Health and Law Enforcement, Henry J. Steadman, Ph.D. et al, Psychiatric Services, January 1999, Vol. 50. No 1, pp. 99-101

^24^ Reported in the Miami Herald, May 21 1999.

^25^ Report in The Miami Herald 20 June 1999

^26^ An implement used for washing car windshields

^27^ AI wrote to the Oakland Police Department which was reportedly investigating the shooting and to the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.

From Amnesty International, Rights for All: Race, Rights, and Police Brutality; Chapter 4, Amnesty International's Continuing Concerns\ © Copyright 1999 Amnesty International

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Last updated September 30, 1999