Justified, Necessary, or Both?

The police action in Sparks, NV might be controversial, but the Washoe County District Attorney has ruled the officers were justified in shooting, and killing, an armed 45 year old woman with a blood alcohol level of 0.127 in October, 2013. [RGJ]  The wounding of the woman’s daughter may generate more controversy, but the incident illustrates some of the major issues surrounding the use of lethal force by police officers.

The woman in question was threatening suicide.  There may be no more frightening situation for law enforcement personnel than facing someone who feels there is nothing left to lose. Individuals have been reported as deliberately assaulting officers while unarmed or while brandishing a variety of lethal and non lethal weapons. Some, perhaps up to 100 per year are intent upon having the police officer assist a suicide. [PSMag] Whatever the woman’s intent, let’s avoid using the catch-phrase “suicide by cop,” because it’s an undefined, unclear, categorization into which altogether too many incidents can be inserted which may or may not resemble one another in detail. [Slate]

What is reasonably clear from the report is that the woman was pointing her gun at her own head at one point in the confrontation, and threatening to end her life.  Suicidal ideation is one symptom of mental illness, and in entirely too many cases we are asking the police to serve as mental health professionals, a task for which they aren’t trained.

The fatal shooting of a homeless, mentally ill, man by the Albuquerque, NM police generated criticism of the officers’ use of lethal force last March, but it also highlighted the growing number of instances in which mentally ill individuals – lacking adequate local mental health services – are coming into contact with police agencies. [NYT]

There are training programs available for police officers, such as the NAMI Crisis Intervention Team model.    The Las Vegas Metro PD is working with NAMI-Southern Nevada to develop a collaborative pre-arrest diversion program based on the CIT model. [NAMI-SN] The Reno Police Department also has such a program. [UMemphis]  Smaller, more rural, Nevada counties may or may not have a CIT program in place. [UMemMap]

There is research indicating that the training works.  CIT trained responders were more likely to be engaged in “referral or transport” than in an arrest, and only 12% of the encounters in the study escalated to the level of physical force, and CIT trained personnel “were significantly more likely to report verbal engagement or negotiation as the highest level of force used.” [AJP pdf]

However, it would be remiss not to ask: How much effort is being put into alleviating the necessity of having expansive CIT programs? How many resources does the community provide for the mentally ill?

We also know the unfortunate woman had a blood alcohol concentration level well above Nevada’s general 0.08% limit.  We don’t know whether in this specific case alcohol was a constant or a periodic problem, and it really doesn’t matter individually, but collectively speaking it does raise the question of how well resourced and available alcohol treatment programs  are in the area?  Are they plentiful and affordable? Are they convenient in terms of access or are there long waiting lists and limited treatment facilities?

This case in Sparks, NV also requires some reflection on several other issues. For example, is the “suicide by cop” categorization appropriate, or not?  Are we adopting and implementing consistent training programs throughout Nevada cities and counties which might reduce the escalation of incidents into lethal territory?  Are we asking police departments and law enforcement agencies to assume too much of the burden of initial interaction with mentally ill or suicidal individuals?

As with all such tragic incidents, we’re always left with more questions than answers.

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