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Editorial: Cops need better training on dealing with mentally ill

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The police are often the first to be called when a mentally ill person behaves erratically. But too often, they lack the proper training to wisely handle a situation that can call for split-second decisions.

That mismatch — between the training of police and the challenges of working with the mentally ill — is a contributing factor in the rash of police-involved shootings in recent years that have traumatized communities across the country.

Consider, most recently, the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. The police shot Scott even though his wife told police he had suffered from a traumatic brain injury. Police said Scott had a gun, something his family disputed.

Encounters between police and mentally ill people can turn deadly because police, unable to understand why a person is acting in an unpredictable way, resort to force.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

This month, the Chicago Police Department started a new mandatory training program to help cops prepare for such situations. Other police departments should follow suit, and Chicago would be wise to expand its own program when the current phase is completed. That could require federal funding, as Hillary Clinton said at the first presidential debate, especially for small police departments in poorer communities.

Protecting civil rights is a federal responsibility, and how police work with mentally ill individuals ultimately is a civil rights issue.


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Chicago cops now will spend two days learning how to respond to high-tension situations in which a mentally ill person is behaving erratically. The goal is to de-escalate such situations and use as little force as possible.

A study last year by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, concluded the risk of being killed during an encounter with police is 16 times higher for individuals with untreated mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 15 percent of men and 30 percent women annually in U.S. jails have mental health problems, USA Today reported this week.

Better training can reduce those numbers and cut down on injuries to police officers as well.

About a third of all inmates at Cook County Jail self-report that they have mental health issues, according to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s office. Clearly, police encounters with people suffering from mental health problems are frequent.

Partly that’s because budget cuts over the years have led both the city and to close mental health facilities. The more people who need treatment but don’t get it, the more police will be called in to resolve the situation.

That’s where the new Chicago program will help. Ideally, it eventually will be expanded to 40 hours of training, as recommended by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. About 85 percent of the Cook County sheriff’s police have had 40 hours of training.

Last year, cops who were called in when a college student was having a mental health crisis at his father’s Chicago home wound up shooting and killing both the student and a neighbor.

Fewer such tragedies would benefit citizens, the police and the city.

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