Criminal Justice

Police and prisons deal with increasing numbers of mentally ill people

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Police officers and prisons are dealing with increasing numbers of mentally ill people as state and local governments cut back on mental-health services to save money.

The New York Times reported on the increase, basing its conclusion on interviews with mental-health and criminal-justice experts. In San Diego, for example, calls to the sheriff’s office involving mentally ill people nearly doubled from 2009 to 2011. In Medford, Ore., police in 2011 reported “an alarming spike” in the number of mentally ill people coming into contact with police.

The story cites a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association that estimates half the people shot and killed by police have mental-health issues. In New Mexico, nearly 75 percent of those shot in 2010 and 2011 were mentally ill, according to a report by the New Mexico Public Defender Department.

The Times points to a controversial shooting in which Albuquerque, N.M., police shot and killed a homeless man, James Boyd, who believed he was a federal agent. Police were called to the scene to investigate Boyd for illegal camping. Police say they shot Boyd after he pulled two knives, but an officer’s helmet video of the scene appears to show Boyd turning away when he was shot.

The FBI opened an investigation of the Boyd shooting, while the Justice Department has been investigating whether the Albuquerque police have a pattern and practice of using excessive force, the story says.

The Albuquerque Journal delved further into Boyd’s life. In 2010 he had struck a police officer and broke her nose, and in 2007 he was hospitalized at a mental health facility after breaking windows in his jail cell and punching a corrections officer. Cases stemming from those incidents were dismissed after Boyd was found to be mentally incompetent.

New Mexico law requires consent of a patient or guardian before before psychotropic medications can be administered. Albuquerque passed a law making it easier to require treatment, but the measure was struck down on pre-emption grounds.

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