If You Asked Me, Letters & Opinion

Man Down, System Still Broken

Image of Stan  Bishop
Stan Bishop

THERE are some problems that will just never go away on their own. Even while we speak continuously about getting to the root of them but never really employing the options left at our disposal, we’ll find that doing nothing often leads to greater problems.

Some of the problems we let fester at times have no dollar value attached: no cost overruns on a multi-million-dollar government pet project or use of the Consolidated Fund for questionable purposes. Nothing like that. However, some of the problems we let fester into sores actually end up costing lives while we continue to drink Lipton Tea in grand style, thinking that solving our own problems should be everyone else’s business.

The shooting death of a twenty-seven-year-old Vieux Fort man nearly two weeks ago raised the ugly head of an old argument yet again. Three variables in that shooting were the reasons why eyebrows were rightfully raised yet again: the victim was deemed mentally-ill, he was shot by the very people that most of us deem first resort in cases where law and order needs to be restored, and the first resort choices (the police) responded in the same manner as they did on many such occasions.

That many mentally-ill people continue to lose their lives via police shootings and no alternative solution seems to be on the table should once and for all elicit our immediate outrage and demands for a change in the system. Too often we hear of these incidents whereby the cops are called in to quell a disturbance caused either by a cutlass-wielding or stone-throwing individual deemed mentally-ill. Seemingly, those disturbances are quelled only when police discharge a round or two at that individual that often results in a fatality.

The saddest part of the equation seems to lie in the fact that in most instances the mentally-ill individual’s relatives are the ones making the call to cops to intervene. Fearing for their lives, these relatives often view the police as the necessary force talented enough to deal with such moments of crisis. Time after time, however, we find out that the police officers themselves responding to such scenes of distress contribute to the disastrous result. In the police officers’ defence, one crucial logic seems to prevail which is that police officers are also human and, as such, will employ whatever means are necessary to protect their lives and limbs as most of us would when in grave danger.

During a press conference held with Police Commissioner Vernon Francois some weeks ago, he reiterated that placing police officers in such scenarios might not be the best fit to fill an oversized problem. If Francois had his way, we could see special teams of medical personnel posted in various communities who would act as first responders to such volatile situations. But as easy and simplistic as that idea sounds, one must recognize that in a nation where “limited resources” seems to be the running joke – even for the police force that constantly cries out for reinforcement in many aspects – who really has time to sit around waiting for the next mentally-ill patient to flare up?

I recently read an article entitled “Police Approaches That Improve The Response To People With Mental Illnesses: A Focus On Victims”, published in “The Police Chief”, the professional voice of law enforcement in the United States. According to the article, while “police officers routinely provide the first line of crisis response for situations involving persons with mental illnesses”, estimated to be between 7% and 10% of all police contacts, these situations “pose operational problems for officers and managers and can significantly alter the lives of persons with mental illnesses and their families.”

The article notes that some police agencies have resorted to taking proactive measures to deal with the problem by doing two things: (1) reducing injuries or use of force during such encounters and (2) improving outcomes by using the most appropriate system, either the criminal justice system or the mental health system. “Ultimately,” the article states, “the goal of these efforts is to give persons with mental illness and their families access to services, support, and resources to improve their lives and to enhance community safety.”

The article further states that new approaches to the police response fall into four broad categories:
(1) Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) – specially-trained police officers acting as primary or secondary responders to calls in which mentally-ill people are involved. (This method was pioneered by the Memphis Police Department and has been adapted in other U.S. jurisdictions);
(2) Comprehensive Advanced Response (CAR) – this method fuses the traditional response method with a mandatory advanced 40-hour training for all police officers;
(3) Mobile Crisis Team (MCT) – this involves civilians who are themselves licensed mental health professionals who act only as secondary responders that are called in after law enforcement would have secured the scene; and
(4) Teams of mental health professionals and police officers, the former of which are hired by the police departments to serve as second responders. The mental health professionals can either work within or away from the police department but ride along with police officers whenever they are needed.

Now while all of this would make sense to the average Saint Lucian civilian and law enforcer alike, the crucial factor that perennially plagues any implementation of any progressive methods require the requisite dollars. As under-funded as it already is, incurring any additional burden on the Force’s purse can seem really, well, insane. Limited finances notwithstanding, the local police force definitely needs to employ better methods of restraining people deemed mentally-insane whenever such flare-ups occur.

One also needs to recognize the humane side of the equation. Some international conventions prohibit the execution of even condemned prisoners once they are found to be mentally-ill. Why, then, should an innocent mentally-ill person be killed when they’re in a state where they have no control over their mental faculties? According to legal eagles, for a condemned prisoner to escape execution, he/she must prove that he/she did not know the difference between right and wrong at the time he/she committed the crime and that he/she is not competent to assist his/her attorney at trial. The defendant can also escape execution if at the time of the actual execution he/she is not sane enough to understand what is happening and why (even if this can only be accomplished by forcible medicating him/her).

The fact that mental illnesses seem to be on the rise in Saint Lucia due to many reasons, it would stand to reason that a better and safer system is adopted to ensure that mentally-ill patients are indeed kept on their medication. Having huge buildings that purportedly cater to the needs of those who should benefit from their services would just be orange elephants if we continue to kick the can down the road thinking that mental illness is just a “zombie” issue that will go away on its own. The police, too, need to impress upon the policymakers that we follow or adapt the examples of what obtains in other jurisdictions so as to avoid unfortunate instances of mentally-ill people losing their lives. Anything less than that would be less civilized and flat out crazy.

The system is broken. It’s time we fixed it.

Stan Bishop began his career in journalism in March 2008 writing freelance for The VOICE newspaper for six weeks before being hired as a part-time journalist there when one of the company’s journalists was overseas on assignment.

Although he was initially told that the job would last only two weeks, he was able to demonstrate such high quality work that the company offered him a permanent job before that fortnight was over. Read full bio...

2 Comments

  1. “Too often we hear of these incidents whereby the cops are called in to quell a disturbance caused either by a cutlass-wielding or stone-throwing individual deemed mentally-ill.”

    Yes, because there are too many among us.
    Total mental retardation.

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