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How should law enforcement deal with mentally ill?

Published On: Oct 08 2013 01:42:44 PM CDT
Capitol shooting from caught on camera

REUTERS/Alhurra/Handout

By attorney Melba Pearson, Special to THELAW.TV

Mental illness has been increasingly in the news. Questions have arisen after the Washington Navy Yard shooting, and last week, Miriam Carey was shot and killed by police after leading them on a high speed chase around the Capitol. How should law enforcement deal with the mentally ill?

Approximately one in four adults across America suffer from some form of mental illness. Sadly, many mentally ill people end up in the criminal justice system. They may use alcohol or illegal drugs to self-medicate, in order to "make the voices stop." They may commit crimes of violence against family members, law enforcement, and regular citizens. This is clearly an issue with the now deceased Aaron Alexis, the lone shooter at the Washington Navy Yard. He was said to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from his deployment in the Middle East, while serving in the Navy. There have been stories of his explosive anger, including shooting out a car's tires several years before this shooting, and questions as to whether or not the military allows soldiers to truly seek the help they need without compromising their careers.

Some are less violent, but live in their own version of reality. Miriam Carey, the woman at the center of the Capitol chase, believed that President Barack Obama was stalking her. Information has been released that Carey may have suffered from post-partum depression with psychosis, and only displayed strange behavior after the birth of her child one year ago. Up until that time, she was a dental hygienist, helping others while leading a normal life. She was on medication; but tragically, she stopped taking it in the weeks before the Capitol chase. The illness and the lack of medication possibly led her to drive from her home in Connecticut to Washington, D.C., where she tried to drive onto the White House lawn. This act ended in the chase with Capitol police, which led to her tragic death in front of her young toddler.

Law enforcement intervention with the mentally ill is not always pretty. The question becomes, will this person harm themselves or others? The law allows for force to be used, as ugly as the result may be. In this situation, the Capitol police were faced with a threat. They did not know that Carey was mentally ill; all they saw was a potential terrorist threat. This incident was merely two weeks after the deadly shootings at the Navy Yard. In light of this, as well as being in a post-9/11 world, the officers were on high alert. We all know that a car can be used to kill someone, and many states have criminal laws on this. When Carey refused to stop her car, tried to run over officers (striking one Secret Service officer), and seemed determined to drive onto the lawn of a government building, the officers acted to protect themselves and the public from injury. Even if they knew she was mentally ill, the officers can still respond with force in order to end a deadly threat.

It is even more difficult for the family, who has to stand by the sidelines, helpless and watching. The criminal justice system, which is designed to punish, is slowly becoming more sensitive to issues of mental illness … but there are no easy answers. You can have a million programs in place to help the person struggling with mental illness. But the problem that remains is keeping the person on medication, when the disease tells them that they are fine. Additionally, law enforcement is tasked with protecting all citizens, while making it home alive to their families. At the intersection of mental illness and justice, there are no clear cut winners.

The author, Melba Pearson, is a prosecutor in South Florida.

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