Mimesis Law
21 September 2019

“Therapists” With Guns (And Responsibility)

Jan. 6, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — In a fascinating post, Murray Newman offers a perspective on the inadequacy of police to handle confrontations with the mentally ill without leaving someone dead on the ground.  He begins with the general absolution of police for not being willing to die for their paycheck.

A police officer’s job is a dangerous one. Other than that of a soldier’s, no other job description in the world holds the expectation that the employee face the potential of death whenever they clock in on the job.

Unlike the job of the soldier, however, almost every time a police officer takes a life in the course of his or her job, he immediately faces intense scrutiny and criticism for that decision.  Sometimes that scrutiny and criticism is deserved.  Other times it is not.  Contrary to the belief of some, no police officer has the duty to die in the course of his or her job, if they have the opportunity to prevent it from happening.

While this raises the hoary reaction that cops fail to make the top ten most dangerous job, that’s not Murray’s point.  Risk of harm, death, is part of the job description. It’s not a duty to die, but the potential, to which he speaks.  This is why there is a First Rule of Policing, but not logging. And it is not only a fair point, but a very real one. No one wants to die on the job. To think otherwise is nuts.

And of the potentially dangerous aspects of law enforcement, dealing with the mentally ill is one of the most problematic because the mentally ill are, well, mentally ill.

Most articles on the topic of police shootings of people suffering from mental illness place the blame on a lack of training by the police. These types of articles are usually written from the perspective of a Monday Morning Quarterback who fails to take into account the volatility of a mentally ill individual and the speed in which these types of situations can escalate.

The resort to the “Monday Morning Quarterback” trope is unfortunate, as the only available options are to view conduct in retrospect or give it a pass entirely.  Assuming that society isn’t prepared to let cops do whatever they please without accountability, then engaging in post hoc review is the only means by which the propriety of their action can be determined.

And lest anyone get too disgruntled about it, the law engages in “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” in essentially every instance. Whether it’s done well or poorly, fairly or not, is a different question. That it’s done after-the-fact is just how we roll, and that won’t change until someone invents a time machine.

Having explained that police enter into confrontations with the mentally ill carrying certain baggage, and that one reviews what transpired in a volatile interaction without, perhaps, the ability to see it through an officer’s eyes, Murray offers an alternative villain.

Rather than focusing on the idea that police officers mishandle encounters with the mentally ill, editor Rich Lowry stresses the point that the blame falls more on the mental health industry.  Lowry uses the December 26, 2015 shooting deaths of Quintonio LeGrier and neighbor Bettie Jones by the Chicago Police Department as an example of police being called out to deal with mental health issues that should have been addressed much earlier and by more qualified personnel.

These shootings are another tragic symptom of our contemptible outsourcing of the severely mentally ill to law enforcement. The police are our de facto front-line mental-health workers – “armed social workers” in the pungent phrase of one observer – and jails are our de facto psychiatric-hospital system.

As Greg Prickett explained, police are not social workers. Police are not therapists. Police are guys with guns who demand compliance “or else.” The “or else” refers to whatever weapons they have on their belt and decide to deploy. Because they don’t want to die that day.

While there is no clear impediment as to why cops can’t be better trained as social workers, therapists, as well as guys with guns, under the assumption that they would not only prefer to survive their shift, but not kill someone whose “crime” is suffering from mental illness, this may be too far beyond their abilities to happen.

Or maybe they just don’t have the desire to work that hard so that a crazy can live when they can shoot, end the confrontation, be absolved of responsibility (because, you know, the guy was nuts, so…), and make it home in time to have a delicious and nutritious dinner with the family.

While Murray’s alternate villain is certainly worthy of scrutiny, the mental illness industry having failed to serve those in need of its services sufficiently well to keep them from being on the business end of a police officer’s gun, blame isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

This becomes particularly problematic as additional burdens are placed on mental health resources in the quest for gun control, to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill at all costs. An industry that can’t manage to fulfill its mission now is unlikely to do better as more demands are dumped on it.

Which means that it will be left to cops on the street to continue to play therapist with a gun.

The sad reality is that the issue of the violent mentally ill is a Catch-22 that may never be effectively resolved to the satisfaction of anyone.

Murray raises the bar quite high here. Satisfaction is hard to achieve.  Everyone’s satisfaction is almost impossible. But that’s really not the question asked of the therapist with a gun. Since cops aren’t sufficiently interested in learning how to be better social workers, then the least we can demand of them is to stop killing the mentally ill because it’s the easiest, quickest and safest (for them) way to end the confrontation.

No one is asking them to die on the job. Just not kill someone for being mentally ill. Maybe you didn’t realize that being a therapist came with the shield, but you must have realized that your conduct would come under scrutiny every time you killed someone. Even if that someone was crazy.

8 Comments on this post.

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  • Greg Prickett
    6 January 2016 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    “No one is asking them to die on the job. Just not kill someone for being mentally ill. Maybe you didn’t realize that being a therapist came with the shield, but you must have realized that your conduct would come under scrutiny every time you killed someone. Even if that someone was crazy.”

    No one is asking for the officer to stand there and get stabbed, or hacked at with a hatchet either.

    You’re completely off-base here. Police officers do not kill because it is “easier,” they kill because there is not another option. Yes, there have been cases where police were too quick to use deadly force, and those should be identified and held accountable. The vast majority of cases are justifiable however.

    I have answered plenty of calls with mentally ill subjects and didn’t kill any of them. There were two incidents that come clearly to mind. First, the guy that the paramedics were out on and who called us because they didn’t want to deal with a schizophrenic who was off his meds, and second, the guy who was contemplating suicide and had penned a goodbye to his mom on the shotgun shell he was going to use.

    In neither case was it necessary to shoot the poor crazy guy, but I was prepared to do so if it came down to that, with no other options available.

    You need to look at what Murray said about the matter not being handled appropriately by the trained medical personnel. The first incident I mentioned happened when those trained medical personnel abdicated their responsibility to the police – who are not trained to deal with it.

    Perhaps we should focus on why medical treatment and facilities aren’t available to these individuals instead of denigrating the police over it.

    Murray is, if I understand him correctly, pointing out that we have outsourced mental health treatment from the medical system to the criminal justice system, and we need to change that. He’s right.

    • shg
      6 January 2016 at 2:54 pm - Reply
    • C LCrawshaw
      9 January 2016 at 12:48 pm - Reply

      He is right about EMTs/Paramedics abdicating their responsibility, I have seen it first hand. All of the things SHG has said about law enforcement not taking a chance of taking a chance, applies doubly to most (not all) in EMS. It is the number 2 rule of EMS, right behind gloves and glasses. “Scene safety” is the only legitimate defense to an accusation of “Abandonment” other than solid proof that the patient was left in the care of an equal or higher level of provider. If anyone can share a training curriculum or organizational policy for EMS that states an inherent acceptance of risk, I would love to know of it. There are many layers to this onion and I respect the view of Officer G Prickett esquire, even when I may not fully agree with it.

      I wish more of us in “public safety,” appreciated that the “safety” is more about the public and less about the personal.

  • Murray Newman
    6 January 2016 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Greg,
    That’s exactly what I was saying. I was trying to illustrate the point that by the time police are called in, the situation is already volatile and the point of avoiding deadly force may have already passed.

    Part of what I was trying to write about stems from my own personal experience with a mentally ill friend, who had homicidal ideations towards his father. Attempts to help him via “the System” were only temporary and ultimately failed. In the end, he killed his father and is now serving life in prison. I wrote about it here: http://harriscountycriminaljustice.blogspot.com/2010/07/closing-barn-doors.html

    I just feel that if we are bypassing opportunities to help the mentally ill when things are relatively calm, it seems rather chickenshit to condemn the cops for the way they respond once the shit has hit the fan. I’m not advocating shooting the mentally ill like a horse with a broken leg, but I’ve seen first hand how quickly those types of situations escalate.

    • shg
      6 January 2016 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      …it seems rather chickenshit to condemn the cops for the way they respond once the shit has hit the fan.

      When the shit has hit the fan is when the cops’ job matters. That’s when we need them to be at their most responsible. The options aren’t working mental health system or death by cop. We can expect both to work, and cops don’t get a pass because the mental heath system sucks.

  • DaveL
    7 January 2016 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Risk of harm, death, is part of the job description. It’s not a duty to die, but the potential, to which he speaks. This is why there is a First Rule of Policing, but not logging. And it is not only a fair point, but a very real one. No one wants to die on the job. To think otherwise is nuts.

    It’s not a fair point, it’s utter nonsense. Yes, nobody wants to die on the job, but the police aren’t unique in that doing their job involves taking risks. Do you think Alaskan crab fishermen don’t take on a risk of harm, of death, as part of their job description? Police don’t put their lives on the line to do their jobs any more than loggers or convenience store clerks.

    • Clark Crimcops
      9 January 2016 at 7:19 am - Reply

      Actually loggers and convience store workers are more likely to leave an empty plate on the dinner table than cops, but you never hear them using this as an excuse to kill 11-year-old kids in the park.

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