Lawmakers examine police encounters with people with mental illnesses

WASHINGTON — Answering any call for help can be dangerous for police officers, but it can be especially volatile when it involves someone with an untreated mental illness.

Members of a Senate subcommittee heard testimony Thursday about solutions to better protect those in need of mental health help while also keeping the officers who respond to help them safe.

“An estimated ten percent of total police calls involve mental health situations,” said Maj. Martin Bartness, the Commander for Education & Training Section at the Baltimore Police Department. “Inadequate funding and a system that diffuses responsibility among numerous uncoordinated entities are the core of the problem.”

Lawmakers heard from members of law enforcement and mental health advocates who argue more funding is needed to address mental health needs to help avoid potentially dangerous situations.

“These calls can be very dynamic and sometimes dangerous,” said Fresno County California Sheriff Margaret Mims.

Body camera video captured a dangerous encounter between police and a Jacksonville, Florida woman last year at a group home for people with mental illness.

Leah Baker, 29, was shot and killed in that encounter after police said she cut an officer with a butcher knife.

The State Attorney’s Office deemed that the shooting was justified.

Witnesses in the hearing on Capitol Hill said part of the solution should involve preventative help.

A California woman diagnosed with schizophrenia said she encountered police during a welfare check.

“Being deemed a danger to myself, I was handcuffed and taken to the police station where I was handcuffed to a chair,” said Keris Myrick, a certified personal medicine coach. “What I didn’t need was the police response and being treated like a criminal. I needed healthcare and support.”

Lawmakers also heard from witnesses like the widow of Philadelphia Police Sgt. James O’Connor was shot and killed while serving a murder warrant last year.

“Jim’s death will never seem real,” Terri O’Connor said.

She urged lawmakers to make sure law enforcement agencies also remain fully funded in this effort.

“Good policing requires a commitment to robust training that must be ongoing,” O’Connor said. “This requires funding.”

A report with the National Institutes of Health said most police encounters with mentally ill people do not lead to serious injury or death.