New Mexico Police Shooting Shows Void in Mental Health Care, Groups Say

By / Apr 7, 2014 A helmet-cam video showing police immediately before the shooting of James Boyd, who suffered from mental illness. (Albuquerque Police Department)

The death of James Boyd at the hands of police led to widespread protests in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently, but the incident exposes a significant issue, advocacy groups say: Police often act as de facto outpatient services for the mentally ill.

The death of a New Mexico man at the hands of Albuquerque police officers is drawing new attention to a troubling issue for the mentally ill.

James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man who had a history of violent incidents due to mental health issues, was shot and killed by Albuquerque Police Department officers after they caught him camping illegally. The shooting, captured on an officer’s helmet-cam [warning: graphic video], was controversial and drew protests last month.

But it also raised significant questions about police’s handling of the mentally ill and what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future:

It’s like if we stopped treating heart disease until people had heart attacks.

Services in decline: Since the decline of the institutional model for treating the mentally ill started in the 1960s, efforts to offer mental health care in other settings have not kept up. As Ronald Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted to The New York Times, the type of preventive care common for physical ailments often doesn’t exist for those suffering from mental illness. “It’s like if we stopped treating heart disease until people had heart attacks,” Honberg told the Times. “We’d be seeing lots of people having heart attacks in the street. That’s what’s happened in our mental health system. Once people get to the point of crisis, that’s a difficult time to start treatment.”

Police on the front lines: Law enforcement has filled the void left by a lack of mental health services, experts say.  A 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association found that at least half of all people shot and killed by law enforcement officials between 1980 and 2008 had mental health issues. “It is now well-known that jails and prisons have become the de facto frontline ‘inpatient units’ for seriously mentally ill persons,” the study states [PDF]. “What is less well known is that law enforcement officers are now functioning as the frontline ‘outpatient system.’ Both of these changes were unintended and unplanned and are direct consequences of the progressive failure of state and county mental health programs to do their job.”

A challenge on the ground: For its part, the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, which told the Times that these situations are often difficult to train for, has found itself on the defensive related to a spate of shootings by officers, of which Boyd’s was only the latest. After Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry suggested the U.S. Department of Justice should monitor the city’s police department, the police union pushed back. Berry’s suggestion is “a slap in the face to everybody that wears a uniform in the city of Albuquerque,” APOA Vice President Shaun Willoughby told KOAT-TV.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »


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