News Article Details

EDITORIAL: Fix Mental Health Gaps

Columbian - 8/14/2017

Aug. 14--Let's say that you are a police officer. You confront a man who has barged into somebody's apartment. He tries to slash you with a steak knife. You know that children are in the apartment, but you do not know where. The man ignores your orders, runs into a bedroom, and tries to close the door. You hear a child cry, seemingly from the direction where the man is headed.

Question: Do you use deadly force, even though there might be factors you do not yet know?

These details, included in a report from the Clark County Prosecutor's Office about the fatal shooting of Justin Andrew Burton, provide some insight into the difficulty of life-and-death decisions made by police officers. Equally important, they provide some insight into the need for Washington to address its mental health system.

As a recent story by reporter Andy Matarrese of The Columbian detailed, officers are increasingly confronting citizens who might or might not be dealing with mental issues. Burton, who was killed by a Vancouver officer, had a history of mental illness, which was unknown to officers responding to the incident in February. "I think the officers are very wary, because our officers, truly they want to help people," said Vancouver police Lt. Kathy McNicholas, who was not involved in the Burton shooting. "I think we've become social workers, and it's just more and more put on police."

When responding to a call, officers rarely have time to diagnose a suspect's mental condition or the possibility of drug or alcohol use -- factors that can increase the volatility of a situation. And while they do undergo crisis training to help them deal with those situations, that can be inadequate when confronting a suspect who has a knife and might be endangering children.

Along the way, police are placed on the front lines of changing national attitudes regarding mental illness. By one estimate, the number of public psychiatric beds nationwide has dropped from 340 beds per 100,000 people in the 1950s to 17 beds per 100,000 by 2005. The trend has been toward allowing people to live their lives as they wish unless they are deemed a danger to themselves or to others, rather than being quick to institutionalize them. This is a humane approach, but it is one that has consequences that officers often must deal with. As Kim Mosolf, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, said of police: "They're the mental health providers of last resort."

Police shootings have become a topic of much discussion in recent years -- as they should be. Many shootings across the country have received scrutiny from the public and media, calling into question police tactics and, in some cases, possible racial bias. Dismissing the concerns of critics, as some prefer to do, would poorly serve the public. It also would poorly serve officers, allowing for doubt to shade every incident in which an officer fires a gun. While the discussions are complex and politically charged, they must be held.

Meanwhile, Washington must assist officers by shoring up its mental health system. More than $100 million has been provided for that system in the two-year operating budget passed by the Legislature in June. Additional construction money is expected to be included if a capital budget is eventually passed.

This represents an acknowledgement that failure to address the mental health system creates ripples. The impact is felt by police officers on a regular basis, and it is one that makes their jobs more difficult.


(c)2017 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

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