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Lives of Mentally Ill, Police Collide

Posted by on Oct. 23, 2013 at 4:26 PM
  • 6 Replies

Law-enforcement professionals and mental-health advocates believe they are seeing an increase in fatal encounters between police and the mentally ill.



Oct. 22, 2013 10:30 p.m. ET


HILLIARD, Ohio—It was near the intersection of Fishinger and Smiley that Tony LaRosa's life careened into Billy Lane's mental illness.

A police dispatcher had sent Officer LaRosa to what seemed like a routine accident call. When he arrived, Mr. Lane, 25 years old, was outside his wrecked SUV, bloodied, holding a butcher's knife and threatening passersby. Mr. Lane advanced relentlessly on the police officer, who shot him four times. Mr. Lane died on the spot.


Billy Lane, left, was killed by Hilliard, Ohio, Police Officer Tony LaRosa. Lane family, Gary Fields/The Wall Street Journal

The physical confrontation, according to the Hilliard police radio recording, lasted 10 seconds. The aftermath, for Officer LaRosa, has lasted two years, five months and counting.

Officer LaRosa, now 30, thinks often about the man he killed and about someone else closer to home. Mr. Lane suffered from bipolar disorder, just like the officer's older brother. He sees his own family's struggle with mental illness in the Lane tragedy. And he fears there might one day be a similar end for his own brother.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," Mr. LaRosa said. "I have thoughts come up, and it's giving me a hard time."

Law-enforcement professionals and mental-health advocates believe they are seeing an increase in fatal encounters between police and the mentally ill. They point to a narrowing range of treatment options that has shifted more responsibility for the mentally ill to law officers, jails and prisons.

"No police officer does well with shooting someone, let alone someone with mental illness," said Michael Biasotti, immediate past president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police and a mental-health and law-enforcement policy researcher. "That destroys a bunch of people at once."

Mr. Lane's family members are filled with regret over signs they think they missed, including the state of his condo, which they rarely visited, and the way Billy Lane had distanced himself from lifelong friends.

Officer LaRosa, for his part, is often overcome with tears when he thinks back on the incident. He said he feels closer to his own brother, Shawn, and understands his symptoms and moods better than before. He has imagined his brother holding a knife and ignoring an officer's command to drop it. He has pictured someone in uniform at his parents' front door telling them their oldest son is dead. And then some other officer would be left to deal with the emotional aftermath.

Anecdotal evidence suggests violent attacks on police officers by mentally unstable people have been increasing over the past decade, said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 330,000 law-enforcement officers. Definitive data is scarce, in part because mental-health records are restricted by federal regulations and state laws.


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In recent weeks, the potential for harm has come to the fore after two deadly incidents in Washington, including the shooting rampage on Sept. 16 at the Washington Navy Yard that left 13 people dead including the gunman, who was shot and killed by police. Authorities said the man suffered from mental-health problems. Earlier this month, police shot and killed a Connecticut mother who tried to ram her car through a White House barrier. In that instance, critics including the woman's family have suggested police may have overreacted. Police in Washington have said mental-health issues were involved, and they are reviewing the encounter and the use of deadly force.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps track of instances of "justifiable homicide," which it defines as "the killing of a felon by a law-enforcement officer in the line of duty," but it doesn't note which of those involve mental illness. While crime rates nationally have fallen almost every year since the late 1990s, justifiable homicides by police officers have risen, from 297 in 2000 to 410 in 2012.

Hidden within that category is what is known informally as "suicide by cop," when a person intentionally provokes an officer into using lethal force. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in Washington, D.C., which researches law-enforcement issues, said he believes this type of suicide is increasing in frequency.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior director of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said there aren't many studies of suicides that involve law-enforcement officers. A small number of studies, based on police records, have found in at least half the cases the victim had a known psychiatric history, and in at least a fifth the victim was undergoing treatment for mental illness.

Regular police training teaches officers at a crime scene to employ a force continuum, which starts with the fact of the officer's presence and, depending on how the subject responds, moves through verbal commands and hand controls and then to the use of a nonlethal device like a baton or Taser.

Generally speaking, nonlethal devices are considered appropriate options when more than one officer is present. As soon as the subject has a weapon, though, "options to deal with the situation rapidly decrease," said Lance LoRusso, an Atlanta attorney and author of "When Cops Kill."

In contrast, mental-health training tells officers to approach a subject who is thought to be mentally ill in a nonthreatening way and to use a conversational manner rather than barking commands, said Lou Reiter, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and a nationally known consultant.

About half the nation's population lives in places where officers don't receive training in dealing with the mentally ill, said Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Last year the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 44.7 million adults, or nearly a fifth of the adult population, experienced mental illness in the previous year, ranging from anxiety to extreme schizophrenia. That suggests an officer, on any given call, is reasonably likely to encounter a mentally ill person. Dispatchers try to give a heads-up if they suspect a call might involve someone with mental-health issues. Usually, though, it is just an officer and his or her instincts.

During a 2010 traffic stop in Portland, Ore., Officer Christopher Burley was trying to physically get Keaton Otis, 25, out of his car, after the young man had ignored police commands. Mr. Otis broke away, pulled a gun and shot Officer Burley twice. Mr. Burley's fellow officers responded by killing Mr. Otis. Later, they learned he suffered from a mood disorder marked by depression and paranoia.

Mr. Burley said it is easier to think that bad things happen only to bad people. Instead, he said, "it's a young guy who has been struggling with mental illness, and his family had been crying out for help." Mr. Burley is still an officer and now works with Mr. Otis's mother to raise awareness of the challenges faced by families of the mentally ill.

Boston Police Sgt. Detective Michael Talbot has flashbacks to the night, 21 years ago near Fenway Park, when he shot a mentally ill man who had ignored warnings and was advancing on him with a knife. "I remember praying the whole night saying, 'God, don't let him die,' " the officer said. He did die, though, setting off a civil lawsuit, a year of limited duty, an investigation and emotional turmoil. The Suffolk County prosecutor ruled the shooting was justified and the civil case was decided in the officer's favor. Still, if faced with the same scenario, he said, "I'd hesitate before I'd ever do it again."

Officer LaRosa's May 11, 2011, shift began routinely. He was driving his patrol car away from the office at 6:37 p.m. when he got the call that an SUV had crashed into a concrete pillar on Smiley Road.

Mr. Lane, 25, had been diagnosed six months earlier with bipolar disorder, which is characterized by extreme mood swings and sometimes-manic behavior. He had a breakdown and spent two weeks in a hospital, according to Dorothy Lane, his mother. Navigating the insurance and medical system and standing by their son became "the new normal," she said.

The day before Billy Lane's 26th birthday, the Lanes had dinner with their son at their home. He left, and at around 6:30 p.m. the couple was heading to a support-group meeting when they spotted his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the road. With no indication that he had seen them, the Lanes went on to their meeting.

Officer LaRosa, responding to the accident call, had barely turned on his siren when dispatch was back on the radio with an update: The driver was out of the vehicle. Seconds later another update came through: Witnesses said the driver was armed and threatening bystanders. A subsequent call reported the motorist had cut his throat.

Driving to the scene, Officer LaRosa wondered how an accident could have escalated so quickly. When he arrived, he saw bystanders backing away. As Officer LaRosa got out of his car, Mr. Lane, armed with a knife, started heading in his direction. Then, Mr. Lane turned and started to run, but, after a brief chase, he stopped and went toward Officer LaRosa again.

As Mr. Lane approached, the officer fired two shots and thought he missed. Mr. Lane was closing the distance between them with surprising speed. The officer fired twice more. Witnesses told police that Officer LaRosa had screamed repeatedly for Mr. Lane to stop, put down the knife and get on the ground, each time with more urgency.

Mr. Lane didn't say a word, Officer LaRosa said. The autopsy report said he probably couldn't talk because of the self-inflicted neck wound.

Ten minutes after he had arrived, Officer LaRosa was sitting alone in a patrol car while paramedics tended to the man he had just shot. "It was the loneliest feeling in the world," he recalled.

Over the next few hours, Chief Douglas Francis took the young officer's service pistol, a standard procedure, and talked to Mr. Lane's father and brother, who had arrived on the scene. Officer LaRosa called his parents to tell them he had been involved in an incident. He was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation by outside law-enforcement officers and the Franklin County grand jury.

The grand jury asked questions like those raised by community members and news media. Why did the officer fire so many shots? Why didn't he use a Taser? Someone asked why he didn't shoot the knife out of Mr. Lane's hand.

The grand jury declined to press charges. Several months later, the department investigation concluded Officer LaRosa had conducted himself properly. He returned to duty in late May 2011 and was monitored for several months.

In 2011, the year of Mr. Lane's death, 8% of police incidents in Hilliard that involved use of nonlethal force, such as control holds, also involved mental illness, Chief Francis said. That rose to 26% in 2012.

Since the Lane shooting, Chief Francis has sent more officers to crisis-intervention training and acquired more Tasers. He doesn't think any of that would have made a difference in the Lane case, though.

When Mr. Lane didn't drop the knife and advanced on the officer, he crossed a threshold, the chief said. "If they have a gun or a knife, an officer only has a millisecond to debate this," he said.

Officer LaRosa replays the shooting in his mind: If faced with a similar situation, he would try to talk his way out—quickly. But given the same threat of violence, he thinks he probably would make the same call again.

"You go through the academy expecting Joe Bad Guy to bail out of a car and start shooting at us," he said. "They don't train us for Billy."

Officer LaRosa only recently overcame uncontrollable shaking that started after the shooting. "I found myself shaking on basic calls that would never bother me before," he said. "I never told anybody about it. I was afraid to tell people."

After the shooting, Officer LaRosa telephoned his brother and told him of his fears for him. Mr. LaRosa's father, Bob, called later to reiterate the message. With their father suffering from muscular dystrophy and their mother undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, the brothers have embarked on difficult conversations about their future.

"Shawn takes a lot of patience, and Tony never really had the patience to deal with it," said the officer's mother, Rusty. "But since this shooting, I think Tony understands more that a lot of what's happening to Shawn is not under his control."

Mr. Lane's parents haven't spoken to Officer LaRosa, but they said they don't blame him. "That was his job," Mrs. Lane said. "We read these stories in the paper just like anybody else, and we're so thankful our son didn't shoot a bunch of people."

The Lanes wrote a letter to the Hilliard police department, which said in part, "We are saddened by the circumstances Hilliard and Upper Arlington police encountered yesterday evening. We hold no ill feelings and extend our sympathy to the unfortunate officer forced to fire on Billy. We are convinced Billy achieved his desired outcome."

Sitting in the chief's office reading the letter, Officer LaRosa's eyes teared up. At one point he put a fist to his mouth as he thought of his brother: "All I can hear is my mom blaming herself…and the pain she has come through."

by on Oct. 23, 2013 at 4:26 PM
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Replies (1-6):
VinVanMom
by Member on Oct. 23, 2013 at 4:30 PM
1 mom liked this
Ill or not he was dangerous probably off his meds. It cost him
gludwig2000
by Gina on Oct. 23, 2013 at 4:32 PM
There isn't enough being done to help those who are suffering with mental illness or to help the people who try to care for them, smh.
lancet98
by Bronze Member on Oct. 27, 2013 at 5:26 PM
2 moms liked this

A lot of it doesn't have to happen.   A few are inevitable.   Most are not.

When police have more training in dealing with the severely ill the number of fatalities on both sides is less.  

Having talked a few people out of a dangerous situation, I can say that with many of the situations, it is possible to stop the harm.   I don't have much training or experience; if I can diffuse a situation others can too, and others can be taught to.

As an example, officers often shoot a mentally ill person for 'failing to comply with orders' to put down a weapon, stop walking or lay down on the ground.   If they realized that the person often can't even HEAR them or understand what they're saying, things might go a little different.   The way many police deal with it reflects a non-understanding of what severe mental illness can do to people and how profoundly it can affect their thinking.

A BIG part of 'stopping the violence' is requiring people who really need it, to take medication.  

Yes, in most cases, it really is that simple.  

With most of our recent mass shootings, these were people who were DIAGNOSED, who had been judged a danger to self or others, and had simply been allowed to go off their medication.   They needed supervision, and they didn't get it.   They weren't rational enough on their own, to understand they were ill or choose to take the treatment they needed; on their own.    

MOST of the violent mentally ill are ONLY violent because they're not taking medication that they really need.   If they were on medication, they would never have done what they did.

This is a VERY small percentage of the mentally ill, too.   Most are never going to be violent.  But a few, yes.   They not only are too irrational to choose treatment, they are so ill that they can't control their emotions or behavior, or they see threats where there are none.

A great many people in the US have more severe mental illness, and a great many of them are not diagnosed or are not taking medication they need.  SOME of those people could become violent.

We're going into the second or third generation of people who have had really inadequate mental health care.   An we're reaping the whirlwind, because a handful of people are violent if they don't get the help they need.

But the truth is even worse.   There are SO MANY people who simply suffer in silence, who commit suicide, who leave marriages, or who turn their family's life into an agony of worry waiting for what is going to happen next.   They're never going to be violent, but their lives and the lives of those around them are destroyed by mental illness.   And no  one requires they get the treatment they need, either.

When the Aurora shooting occured I was taking a class on supporting the families of the mentally ill.   One of the class members said he was relieved when the name of the shooter was released.

I stared at him in disbelief.   'Why were you relieved?' I asked.

'Because it wasn't my brother'.

I asked him how that made him feel.   He said, 'not really that great'.

I asked why.

'Because the next time it will be him'.

But that wasn't the kicker.

The kicker was that he had been violent MANY times, and that multiple family members had struggled for YEARS with the authorities, attempting to get treatment for their severely ill brother.

And of course, when he wasn't being violent he was the sweetest guy in the world.   His family loved him.   That's why they wanted to get him help.

lancet98
by Bronze Member on Oct. 27, 2013 at 6:05 PM
1 mom liked this

 

Absolutely.   The trouble is that some people are too ill to even realize they're ill.   They refuse help because they can't understand that they have an illness.   They lose the ability to evaluate their own behavior.   So they can't make rational decisions about their own treatment.

Quoting gludwig2000:

There isn't enough being done to help those who are suffering with mental illness or to help the people who try to care for them, smh.


 

gludwig2000
by Gina on Oct. 27, 2013 at 7:10 PM
True, but even when the signs are obvious, nothing can be done. Why do they tell us what to look for concerning mental illness, ie, abuses animals, starts fires, makes threats, etc, but when someone who does have this syptoms and a loved one tries to help them, they are told that "until they hurt someone, nothing can be done"? I understand that they wish to prevent abuses, but when all of the signs are there, family should be able to get them some help.
Quoting lancet98:

 

Absolutely.   The trouble is that some people are too ill to even realize they're ill.   They refuse help because they can't understand that they have an illness.   They lose the ability to evaluate their own behavior.   So they can't make rational decisions about their own treatment.

Quoting gludwig2000:

There isn't enough being done to help those who are suffering with mental illness or to help the people who try to care for them, smh.


 

lancet98
by Bronze Member on Oct. 27, 2013 at 8:14 PM

 

Where did you get the idea that the behaviors you listed are typical of mental illness?

Why is nothing done?

That's complicated, but it's mostly about money, not quality of treatment or crap like that.   It's not even about ACCESS to treatment.  The treatment is available.   The problem is that the people who are at risk of violence, are too sick to go up to the mental health center and ask for treatment.   They aren't going to do that.  

 Insurance companies don't want to pay for mental health care, and hospitals don't want mentally ill patients as they usually don't have insurance.   So more and more people are going untreated.  Untreated, undiagnosed.

That part of it is simple.  

The police bring in a severely psychotic person.   He's fighting like a wild cat, he's fighting for his life.  He's terrified.   He was waving a sword around his apartment complex screaming that the Balinese are taking over his brain.

Admitting interviews him for 30 minutes, and discharges him.   He didn't actually hurt anyone, he was just waving the sword around.  

They give him a business card with a referral on it.  'Be sure to go there and get treatment'.   He isn't going to do that.

What if his psychiatrist insists he's a danger to himself or others and he can't be released?   Administration will release him any way!   What if he refuses treatment?   No one takes it to the judge, and he's discharged. 

What if they keep him a little longer?   They can keep him five days in most states.   But they can't make him take medication.   So he's released even more agitated and frantic than he was when he went in.  

I've stood right there with my mouth hanging open and heard the staff tell a severely psychotic patient, 'If you won't take medication, then leave'.

I'm like, 'WHAAAT?????   He was running around in the snow in his bare feet!   You're KILLING him!'

I've even been in court and seen people who had gotten arrested over eighty times in a single year and all the judge would do is send the person to jail again.   It'd be cheaper to put the guy into treatment - he'll it'd be cheaper to give him treatment, an apartment, and a Gould's Gym membership, food for the rest of his life and free Mets tickets!

THAT part is simple.  

That's what happened to the VA tech shooter.   He was hospitalized and his psychiatrist BEGGED hospital administration not to release him.   Out he went anyway!  

This whole situation is far, far sicker than any mental illness.   It's insane.

But it gets complicated from there.  

Because it's about politics and money, not mental illness at all.

For one, there's a whole bunch of people on the front lines with very disturbing ideas about mental illness.   They're the wrong people.   People working in shelters, doing outreach, who pretend mental illness doesn't exist, basically.   They aren't working very hard to get people into treatment.

I've seen such people chastised by mobile crisis for doing nothing about obviously endangered people, but there isn't actually a thing mobile crisis can do, they have no authority.   People who were wandering out a shelter in shirt sleeves when it was 18 degrees and a full out blizzard going on.   Stuff like that.

For another, there's doctors who don't want to get sued - or more realistically, don't want to get sued for the millionth time.   When it comes to psychiatric patients, a psychotic, delusional person is just as capable of sueing you for involuntarily committing him as anyone else is.   Basically, as  a psychiatrist, you get sued if you release a patient, and you get sued if you DON'T release the patient!   It sucks. 

We have very good state laws that say that people can be hospitalized, even treated, against their will. 

IN FACT, in my state there's a law that says that a person can be involuntarily hospitalized and treated if he is psychotic, irrational, or appears he would BENEFIT from treatment!

YES!   He can even be treated against his will if it appears that in the FUTURE he might be a threat - even just a threat to himself!   Some day!

YES!  

And that's true in most states!   People DO NOT have to commit a crime or be threatening someone to get hospitalized!

 In other words, you're being LIED TO.   What you said is NOT true and I'm sure you're saying it because you were told it was true - state laws do NOT exclude hospitalizing people who aren't a threat or imminently dangerous!

The laws simply are not followed.    THAT is what is REALLY going on!

It was a strange politcal bunch of bedfellows that caused this to come about, and it has NOTHING TO DO with deinstitutionalization.

Yeah, yeah I know, every time people talk about this someone just has to pipe up like a little bird, to chirp, 'Reagan closed the state hospitals in the sixties, blah blah blah'.   We're two GENERATIONS past that now, and it has NOTHING TO DO with our current problems.  

The SAME crap happened with the state hospitals.   People had to get divorced and get rid of all their assets to get mental health care in a state hospital.   If they didn't have the money, they'd get released after a month instead of a week as it is now.   Not a hell of a lot of difference in the long run!

I'm absolutely no fan of the old state hospital system and I do NOT want it back.   It was corrupt, the quality of care was often very bad, and aside from that, taking people out of the community and locking them up is barbaric.  Modern medication means people can live in the community.   But they have to take their medication!

What I DO want is that people who are severely ill be required to take medication.   Yes, that simple.

OUR PROBLEM is that we want to pretend the problem is someone else's fault and someone else's problem.   It isn't.   It's OUR problem.

So we don't.

And this is what is the result.   We're reaping the whirlwind.

It's a bunch of strange bedfellows who made this happen, like I said.  People who don't want to pay mental health levies, wackos against mental health care (schizophrenia, I suppose, is a fun little adventure?), and civil rights people, all in bed with the bean counters and no more taxes people.

In fact, counties do absolutely incredible things with the miniscule amount of money they DO get.   They simply can't handle it all.   They're drowning.  They aren't given enough money.

When I volunteered at one county, they had signs up asking volunteers and employees to bring in toothpaste, soap and the like, because they had run out of money for tooth paste  and soap for patients.  

It was kind of horrifying.   But the county programs were REALLY struggling. This was more than ten years ago, well before the housing bust and recession!

The insurance companies are fighting parity tooth and nail.   They're running some pretty vicious campagnes against mental health care.

It's kind of scary that the insurance companies have so much clout.

But the bottom line is this - most of the people I meet who are severely mentally ill and at risk of violence, fit into one of two categories:

1.  People in a first episode.   Everyone around them is in denial about how psychotic they are.   They may even have been hospitalized several times and told in no uncertain terms they MUST take medication - but they're too irrational to do that.

2. People who have been severely sick for YEARS and have had multiple serious run ins with the law.   They refuse treatment, again, because they are too sick to understand they're sick.    

You wanna change this?   Fight like hell in your state for insurance parity.   FIGHT LIKE HELL.   Write your representatives, congresspersons and senators.

RAISE HELL.

Parity is the first step.   There are many steps after that(such as actually FOLLOWING THE LAWS WE HAVE!!!!), but that's the first step.   There's no point in giving parents the ability to get their loved ones into treatment if there is no way to pay for that treatment.
 

Quoting gludwig2000:

True, but even when the signs are obvious, nothing can be done. Why do they tell us what to look for concerning mental illness, ie, abuses animals, starts fires, makes threats, etc, but when someone who does have this syptoms and a loved one tries to help them, they are told that "until they hurt someone, nothing can be done"? I understand that they wish to prevent abuses, but when all of the signs are there, family should be able to get them some help.
Quoting lancet98:

 

Absolutely.   The trouble is that some people are too ill to even realize they're ill.   They refuse help because they can't understand that they have an illness.   They lose the ability to evaluate their own behavior.   So they can't make rational decisions about their own treatment.

Quoting gludwig2000:

There isn't enough being done to help those who are suffering with mental illness or to help the people who try to care for them, smh.

 

 

 

 

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