Editorial: When police and the mentally ill collide, are there better ways? - Editorials - Mobile

back Side Panel

Editorial: When police and the mentally ill collide, are there better ways?


Over the decades, and hastened by Ronald Reagan when he was California’s governor, we’ve largely shut down the monolithic hospitals for the mentally ill.

Now, instead of the massive “human warehouses” with their endless corridors, we have community-based programs. We have board and care homes tucked into our neighborhoods. We have people helped by medication and therapy who can live at home.

As our front-page story today by Jennifer Bonnett states, in 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. By 2005, there was just one bed for every 3,000 people.

That’s generally a positive thing, no doubt, reflecting breakthroughs in the treatment of the mentally ill.

Still, as those numbers show, there are many among us who are bruised or broken, or certainly in acute emotional pain.

That makes the job of being a police officer, already among the toughest anywhere, all the more difficult. Instead of those suffering from a psychotic disorder being locked up, they are largely out now, largely functional — and sometimes in crisis.

That means collisions between the mentally ill and police are more common. And those encounters, tragically for all concerned, often end badly.

That happened in Lodi on Jan. 25 when relatives called the police because they were concerned about Parminder Singh Shergill, 42. Shergill was a U.S. Army veteran who was dealing with depression and PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happened next is now in dispute: The police say Shergill charged two officers with a knife and they had no option but to shoot him. Those injuries proved fatal.

Family members maintain Mr. Shergill did not charge the officers and did not threaten them. They say his mental challenges were well-known to the police department.

The family’s attorney maintains the officers should have helped him instead of resorting to lethal force.

Now a multi-agency review is being conducted. There seems to be at least the possibility of a lawsuit being filed. The facts remain in dispute, so it is best not to unduly speculate. Yet it seems clear that the officers were placed in a difficult position. They were, after all, not responding to a bank robbery or high-speed chase. This instance, and so many like it, was not a profile of black and white, but a frantic rush of light and shadow.

They had weapons and badges, of course. But did they have the tools to deal with someone, apparently armed and apparently in a state of emotional agitation? Were there options limited by a lack of training in such areas?

Our empathy must extend to Mr. Shergill’s family members, too. Coping with a family member suffering from mental illness can be horribly testing and isolating. They apparently called the police hoping for some constructive intervention. In fact, Lodi officers had taken him to the VA hospital in Stockton on at least two occasions.

So the facts will be gathered and sifted, but there can be no doubt this is a terrible tragedy. A troubled but apparently quite decent man is dead. His family is devastated. Officers and their families are dealing with the trauma of this shooting.

It is only human nature, and perhaps journalistic instinct, to look for what might come from tragedy that is somehow positive. In that vein, we ask whether some of the specialized training programs outlined in Bonnett’s story today are models worth considering here.

The concept of a Crisis Intervention Team, pioneered by the Memphis Police Department, involves volunteer officers receiving specialized training. These officers are then dispatched to calls involving complex and face-to-face mental health crises.

Part of the rationale for the program seems relevant to what we are experiencing now in Lodi. From the Memphis Police Department website outlining CIT: “Traditional police methods, misinformation, and a lack of sensitivity cause fear and frustration for consumers and their families. Too often, officers respond to crisis calls where they felt at a disadvantage or were placed in a no-win situation.”

In Memphis, the CIT is credited with a decrease in the use of force by police and a reduction in police injuries relating to crisis events. Moreover, there has been a decrease in the arrest of mentally ill suspects and an effective diversion of such individuals into the mental health system. The NAMI chapter contends the approach is far more humane for both officers and subject, and has resulted in lives saved.

It would be presumptuous to say CIT or any other program would have saved the life of Parminder Singh Shergill and spared the Lodi officers the terrible trauma of a fatal shooting.

Yet, as a community, we would remiss, when exploring this painful world of light and shadow, not to ask:

Is there a better way?