Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by Jennifer Sarrett, Lecturer, Center for Study of Human Health, Emory University

After Shukri Ali Said[1] left her house during a mental health crisis on April 23, 2018, her sister called 911 for help. Police found Said standing at an intersection holding a knife. Officers shot her five times in the neck and chest.

That same month, in New York, officers answered a 911 call about a black man waving something that looked like a gun. In fact, it was a pipe. But when Saheed Vassell[2], a 34-year-old father with mental illness who was well known in his Brooklyn community, pointed it at police, they shot him.

Vassell and Said are among the hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses[3] in the United States killed by police[4] every year. According to The Washington Post[5], 142 of the 752 people shot by police so far in 2019 have had a mental illness.

Police are almost always the first responders in cases of mental health crises in the United States, as they are in criminal and medical emergencies.

But the police – who are trained[6] to give orders and use force[7] when they feel endangered – are generally ill-equipped to handle people with mental health challenges.

From deinstitutionalization to disarray

As a disability and ethics scholar[8] who focuses on criminal justice, I know this country has long failed to justly and humanely care for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.

For most of American history, people with mental health disabilities were locked away in hospital-like institutions, many of them state-run. Starting in the 1950s, the physical and sexual abuse common in these facilities, as well as other inhumane practices[9], spurred a decadeslong effort to close them down and return residents to the community.

This process, called deinstitutionalization[10], was meant to replace institutions with local mental health centers[11] that would provide community-based mental health treatment and assistance for those recently released from institutions.

However, in 1981 Ronald Reagan[12] cut most funding for these centers. And since other existing community services[13] – like schools, housing and health services – were not adapted to meet the needs of these new community members, many were left jobless, homeless and unable to get a good education.

To stop police shootings of people with mental health disabilities, I asked them what cops – and everyone – could do to help The U.S. closed most state-run mental health institutions, like this one in Iowa, during the latter half of the 20th century. AP Photo/Aleksandra Vujicic[14]

Today, the 15% of Americans[15] with these[16] disabilities[17] still have very little support.

Some people are fortunate enough to live with their families or in one of the United States’ roughly 500 private residential facilites[18] – places that can cost up to US$60,000 a year[19]. Others end up homeless, in poorly run facilities or even in jails[20].

But everyone with these disabilities is at high risk of interacting with police. Too often, these interactions go poorly[21].

‘Nothing about us without us’

In hopes of identifying practices that prevent avoidable deaths, I’ve been interviewing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Under the terms of the academic ethics boards overseeing my research, the names of all my interview subjects are protected.

One reason police encounters can go wrong, I’ve learned, is that people with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions – particularly in a high-stress situation.

“People who don’t have [an intellectual disability] don’t have a hard time understanding what the police are asking them to do,” one man told me. “It’s different for me.”

Being overwhelmed can cause people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities to shut down[22]. If this behavior is interpreted as obstinate[23], it can lead to arrest, detention or police aggression.

People with these disabilities are also often disbelieved by the police[24]. A woman I interviewed – who communicated slowly due to her disabilities – said she called 911 on her boyfriend for hitting her. But the police believed the boyfriend’s story that she was the violent one and arrested her instead.

“When they find out that you’re not capable of understanding what’s going on, it’s a free for all,” another interview subject told me.

People with intellectual disabilities may struggle in court, too. When one interviewee didn’t understand a judge’s question, he told me, he was sentenced to three months in county jail for disorderly conduct.

Judges and lawyers “need to listen to people that’s on disability,” said the woman arrested after calling 911 on her abusive partner, urging patience.

To stop police shootings of people with mental health disabilities, I asked them what cops – and everyone – could do to help New York police officers at a crisis intervention training in 2015. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer[25]

Strategies for change

Recognizing that they struggle to handle people in mental crisis, many U.S. cities are making efforts to improve outcomes.

New York City[26] trains some officers in crisis intervention[27] and recently mandated that a social worker must accompany officers to such cases. Denver is looking to adopt[28] a mobile crisis intervention program[29] started in Oregon that ensures medics and crisis workers, not police, respond to mental health calls.

These and similar efforts nationwide[30] are a step in the right direction. But my research indicates they may not go far enough.

Police frequently encounter people with psychiatric disabilities when someone calls 911 about a person acting unusually in public. If police perceive that person as potentially violent, the situation can quickly escalate[31].

That’s how Anthony Hill[32], a black veteran found wandering around his Atlanta apartment complex naked, died in 2015. Hill, who had gone off his medication, ran toward Officer Robert Olsen, who shot him. Olsen was sentenced to 12 years in prison[33] on Nov. 1, 2019, for aggravated assault and violating his oath of office.

Nor do laws targeting police violence address the factors that lead people with mental health disabilities to need emergency assistance in the first place.

Despite growing recognition[34] of the stigma around mental illness[35], people with mental health disabilities are often still feared, pitied[36] and associated with[37] violence[38] in TV and movies. This social stigma can lead to societal rejection and isolation. And the difficulties people with mental health challenges face finding adequate housing, health care and employment[39] all increase their risk of involvement with the criminal justice system[40].

One lesson from the history of American mental health care is that reforming just one problematic aspect of the system doesn’t work[41]. To serve this population’s needs, other institutions – from education to housing – must also be made more flexible, responsive and accessible.

Just as shuttering institutions 60 years ago solved little, simply targeting police responses[42] won’t suffice now, either.


  1. ^ Shukri Ali Said (
  2. ^ Saheed Vassell (
  3. ^ mental illnesses (
  4. ^ killed by police (
  5. ^ The Washington Post (
  6. ^ trained (
  7. ^ force (
  8. ^ disability and ethics scholar (
  9. ^ other inhumane practices (
  10. ^ deinstitutionalization (
  11. ^ mental health centers (
  12. ^ Ronald Reagan (
  13. ^ other existing community services (
  14. ^ AP Photo/Aleksandra Vujicic (
  15. ^ Americans (
  16. ^ these (
  17. ^ disabilities (
  18. ^ 500 private residential facilites (
  19. ^ US$60,000 a year (
  20. ^ homeless, in poorly run facilities or even in jails (
  21. ^ interactions go poorly (
  22. ^ shut down (
  23. ^ obstinate (
  24. ^ disbelieved by the police (
  25. ^ AP Photo/Mary Altaffer (
  26. ^ New York City (
  27. ^ crisis intervention (
  28. ^ Denver is looking to adopt (
  29. ^ mobile crisis intervention program (
  30. ^ similar efforts nationwide (
  31. ^ situation can quickly escalate (
  32. ^ Anthony Hill (
  33. ^ 12 years in prison (
  34. ^ recognition (
  35. ^ stigma around mental illness (
  36. ^ feared, pitied (
  37. ^ associated with (
  38. ^ violence (
  39. ^ adequate housing, health care and employment (
  40. ^ involvement with the criminal justice system (
  41. ^ doesn’t work (
  42. ^ targeting police responses (

Authors: Jennifer Sarrett, Lecturer, Center for Study of Human Health, Emory University

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Blane Ferguson - avatar Blane Ferguson

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Digital - avatar Metropolitan Digital

Metropolitan Business News

Office Cleaner Takes Ownership of the Neglected Dishwasher

In an office that a dishwasher is being used communally, it is pretty difficult to set rules on how a certain appliance needs to be taken cared of. A dishwasher is a responsibility of no one until you...

News Company - avatar News Company

Amazing tips to become a successful trader

Everyone is working very hard to secure their financial freedom. Most of the people find it hard to support their family even after having a 9-5 day job. For this very reason, people often look for ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Practice For Young Professionals Working Through HR Internships

The industry of human relations is vitally important to the health and prosperity of a business.   Whether they are operating in textile manufacturing, accounting, sports, IT development or hospit...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Easy Steps To Gaining SEO Momentum For Your Business

SEO (search engine optimisation) does not have to be a tiresome and overbearing exercise that diverts attention away from the core functions of a business.   SEO Shark affirms this as a smart and ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Manage An SEO Project On Limited Funds

SEO operators don’t need thousands upon thousands of dollars to become successful.   What SEO practitioners needs more than ever is the skills and diligence to identify problems that are acting a...

News Company - avatar News Company

An Introduction To Coworking For Australian Business Owners

Advancing technology is bringing with it great advantages in communications and networking, and to survive in business you need to keep up. With the rate at which everything changes these days, that...

News Company - avatar News Company


New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt


SKYN®, Australia’s best-selling condom*, today launches its very first SKYN® Places of Intimacy Guide.   Curated in partnership with GQ Magazine and Conde Nast, the Guide features 30 lux...

SKYN - avatar SKYN