Diffusing crisis

Memphis police asked how an armed confrontation with a mentally ill individual might have been prevented, and found a unique answer


     A fatal showdown between a mental patient and police left the Memphis (Tennessee) Police Department dealing with the aftermath of the patient's death, as well as increased public demand for a different approach. Unfortunately, the incident wasn't singular, either to the Memphis PD or law enforcement in general. Police regularly confront mental patients, and the results are often violent and tragic.

     A gunman who recently killed a Los Angeles SWAT officer had a history of mental illness.

     A mentally ill San Francisco man died during a confrontation with police.

     A bipolar Texas resident, armed with a knife, died after being shot by police answering the call.

     The death of North Carolina police officer Terry Lanier is typical of police fatalities resulting from encounters with deranged individuals. Lanier had a promising law enforcement career ahead of him when he was killed responding to the call of a mentally disturbed man carrying a butcher knife. With only his basic law enforcement training to guide him and no outside support, Lanier intended to talk the man into putting down his weapon. He made the fatal mistake of getting too close and instead of surrendering, the man turned and slashed the officer's throat. Sadly, the young officer bled to death before help arrived. His assailant was eventually deemed not fit to stand trial.

     It was a tragedy for everyone involved. Lanier's back-up, arriving a split-second too late to intercede, found himself forced to shoot the man (who survived), but he has since lived with the memory of seeing a friend and fellow officer lose his life.

Past and present problems

     Like the vast majority of officers, Lanier didn't want an out-of-control situation to escalate even further and become a shooting. He sought a peaceful resolution to the encounter and it didn't work. The few hours of specialty training he underwent while in the police academy didn't begin to cover the nuances of dealing with those who are mentally challenged. There were no mental health specialists involved in the incident. And even though Terry Lanier died nearly 30 years ago, many departments have done very little to change their approach to handling those who suffer from mental illness.

     And that's ironic because in today's world, police officers are even more likely to encounter the mentally ill than they were when Lanier died. There's a good reason for this: Reform of the country's mental health system has changed the way those with mental disorders are confined, housed and viewed in the context of the law. This has had strong and sometimes disastrous repercussions.

     The impetus for the change had good intentions. Alarmed at the state of mental facilities, which often kept patients in brutal, inhumane conditions, and concerned about the relative ease with which individuals were kept in confinement, well-intended advocates pushed to reform the system. As a result, warehousing the mentally ill became a thing of the past. Across the country, many mental institutions, especially long-term residential care facilities, closed.

     The mentally ill were given a stronger voice in their treatment and the burden of proof in a commitment became more challenging. Today, it is much more difficult to simply commit someone and "throw away the key" than it was in the past. But in protecting the rights of the mentally disabled and breaking down the chain of sub-standard mental institutions, lawmakers inadvertently created a system that fails to protect patients who cannot make sound judgments on their own.

     As a result, these initiatives increased the numbers of homeless wandering the nation's streets. Police have known for years that many homeless suffer from mental problems, as well as substance abuse. They are mental patients with no place to go, and no one to help them get there. And families in many cases no longer have the legal authority to get their afflicted loved ones help without their cooperation.

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