Training police to prevent Navy Yard-type killings

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Following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, there were predictable demands for gun control, any kind of gun control, no matter how unlikely that it would have prevented them. What went unremarked-upon is something proven to prevent individuals with severe mental illnesses from committing crimes: crisis intervention team (CIT) training for police officers.

Prior to the shootings, the gunman, Aaron Alexis, pleaded with the police for help. He told Newport, Rhode Island police officers that two men and a woman were talking to him through the walls, floor, and ceiling of the Newport Marriott hotel. He‘d never actually seen the three individuals, but he was convinced that they’d been sent by a man he’d argued with at a Virginia airport before boarding a flight to Rhode Island.

Alexis said the three already had driven him out of two other hotels that night. They were preventing him from sleeping by using “some sort of microwave machine” to send microwave vibrations into his body. He was afraid that they were going to hurt him.

If Alexis had told the police that he thought he was having a heart attack, he would have been rushed to the nearest hospital. But because Alexis was showing symptoms “only” of paranoia and schizophrenia, the police advised him to “stay away” from the three individuals. They were imaginary to the police, but they were real and terrifying to Alexis. Instead of trying to get Alexis the treatment he needed, the police concluded: “No further action was required.”

CIT training was started by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 following public outcry over the fatal police shooting of a man with a severe mental illness. Working in partnership with the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental health care providers, and two local universities, the Memphis police developed a program to train officers to recognize signs of mental illness and deal with individuals in crisis. Officers are trained to de-escalate tense situations and help them get treatment.

Research has shown that CIT training significantly reduces injuries to police officers responding to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis and the individuals involved. CIT-trained police officers help individuals with a mental illness obtain proper treatment and save taxpayers money because treatment is far less costly than incarceration.

It’s not clear whether the Newport police could have obtained needed treatment for Alexis. If they couldn’t persuade him to voluntarily agree to be treated, Rhode Island probably wouldn’t have allowed Alexis to be treated involuntarily. Many states allow involuntary treatment when individuals need treatment but are too ill to realize that they need care. Rhode Island, by contrast, allows involuntary treatment only when there’s a substantial risk that individuals will physically harm themselves or others. But the police officers didn’t even try.

Individuals receiving treatment for a mental illness are no more likely to be violent than other individuals. But those with an untreated mental illness are more likely to be violent, particularly if they’re having a psychotic episode associated with paranoia. Alexis left a note saying that months of bombardment by extremely low-frequency (ELF) radio waves had driven him to kill people at the Navy Yard. “My ELF Weapon!” and “End to the Torment!” were etched on his shotgun.

Until we as a society recognize that mental illness is a treatable illness, make needed care available , and permit court-ordered treatment for those too ill to know that they need care, we’ll continue to have tragic shootings by individuals with an untreated, severe mental illness who could have been helped but weren’t. Because Alexis didn’t get needed help, he and 12 other people lost their futures, and the lives of countless others were changed forever.