Police nationwide are ill-equipped to handle the mentally ill
Or are our expectations of officers becoming unrealistic?
The El Cajon shooting just sparked a debate that has been brought up several times in recent history, is law enforcement nationwide ill-equipped to handle the mentally ill?
The El Cajon police were dispatched on a 5150 call, which is a request for an involuntary psychiatric hold because Alfred Olango’s sister had called them.
She told dispatch that he was not himself and that he was sick and needed help.
Officers found Alfred Olango behind a downtown restaurant in a parking lot and within moments police killed him.
Alfred Olango was a 38-year old African American male. He pointed a vape smoking device at officers in such a way that it appeared to them he had a weapon. It is unclear if his sister told dispatch if he was armed or not, didn’t know or if dispatch passed that information onto the responding officers.
This shooting has set off yet another wave of debate, sparking protests in the San Diego suburb. It has become a new hot button in the ongoing saga with regards to deadly encounters between police and people with mental illnesses.
This shooting like the last two are leaving many wondering if law enforcement is too quick to respond with a bullet, are they ill trained, or do they just not care?
One question I usually ask people who are quick to condemn the police for a shooting is “have you ever been in a live shooter situation?” It’s a simple yes or no answer right? Wrong, I always get the “Well if it were me…” answer.
The problem is, the answer is not so simple. Police literally have a split second to size the situation up and to react. Police are not usually called to any situation where they can offer a more “proactive” approach.
They get called when a situation has become one that warrants a reactive response.
A month or so ago I saw a story I want to say out of a small town in Florida. A man was sitting outside of a local Walgreen’s with a gun or rifle. The police were able to successfully talk him down. What was later revealed was that the weapon was not loaded and the man was in fact, mentally ill.
So at first glance we all read the story and think “wow, those cops are amazing, they did not shoot first” but…I later learned that they somehow found out the weapon was not loaded so they negotiated with the man instead of shooting him when he failed to put the weapon down.
The headline made it seem that the situation was something that it was not and it was delivered that way to make the local cops look like heroes, which they are for getting the man help but had they not known the gun was not loaded, the situation may have played out way differently.
Are we expecting too much from law enforcement?
I always try to answer this with two answers, yes and no.
Police can’t read minds or know what the person in front of them is truly thinking. They have a split second to think about it. They are trained to react.
Many people say and to an extent I agree with them, we have gone too far in terms of training cops to react to situations, they need to learn better to react to individuals rather than to a situation because that might change the outcome of some situations.
Yet we as a society, well we do expect police to just know when to shoot and when not to shoot, regardless of whether or not the suspect has a weapon, acts like or pretends to have a weapon.
A bigger issue is, are they getting enough details from dispatch? Do they always know when they are responding to a situation where someone might be experiencing a mental illness? Do they know if the individual is armed or not?
We also have to look at our own expectations and the world that we currently live in.
We need to take into account that it is impossible to expect police to not react to situations that they deem dangerous. We live in a world with too many variables and quite frankly police don’t always know what they are walking into.
Anyone suffering from any type of mental illness may or may not be on medication or worse self medicating. He or she may be on medication but mixing it with alcohol or illegal drugs. He or she may mixing medication with other prescribed medications, they have have taken too much or too little medication.
He or she may be a lone wolf extremist who is hell bent on killing. They may end up facing someone who is unwilling to go to jail so they’d rather get into a shootout with police, it could also be a young teen who has a problem with authority in general.
It’s not feasible to expect police to know all of this when rolling into a situation and not react. It’s not like on TV or in the movies, they really do only get a split second.
None of that means that police don’t need better training, they need to learn to react less quickly, learn to use non-lethal force when needed, police nationwide are getting training to better equip them to deal with the mentally ill but are they using that training enough?
Yet even that training will not cover all of the different scenarios they encounter.
Each side has a story, but society isn’t really hearing the story.
When protesters resort to looting, shooting, rioting, killing, violence and screaming in the face of police, we see and hear you but we don’t hear or see your cause, story or what you hope to accomplish.
The media, parents and loved ones who have lost someone to an officer involved shooting have sometimes not been entirely truthful about who the deceased really was, too reluctant to face reality, they are too quick to condemn the police long before they have even part of the facts let alone half of them. Even after that they still call the shooting unjustified.
For law enforcement, far too often they are too quick to defend the actions of officers and are not being transparent enough. Too many times problem officers are allowed to continually slide and keep jobs when they shouldn’t.
Law enforcement does not have a standard in terms of making sure the police they have are still good cops after years on the job. Nor do they have a standard to ensure they are not bias against anyone and/or desensitized to crimes or victims.
The point is, in general many in society no longer trust police to have their backs. Many see them as militant, abusive, ruthless, unkind, they let the job go to their heads, they put themselves on a pedestal, they feel that they can do no wrong, cover for each other, departments cover for bad cops and they are too eager to shoot black individuals, suspects or not.
So while no one is being heard, we still face the same issues and we are getting nowhere.
No more hiding behind the badge…
No more hiding behind excusing criminal behavior because of race or past mistreatment.
It is time for law enforcement and the communities they serve to come together and just hear each other, compromise and solve the issues that they each face.
Until then, let’s hope for more peaceful meaningful protests throughout the U.S.
Cristal M Clark