Dec 30, 2009
Data from the Portland police and a recent federal court decision raise the question of whether the use of tasers on citizens with mental disabilities is excessive and often unconstitutional.
In April, 2001, a Portland police officer shot and killed José Santos Victor MejÍa Poot. Mr. Mejia Poot was a patient on a psychiatric ward at the time of the shooting. Disability Rights Oregon investigated and found that the private psychiatric facility where Mr. Mejia Poot was held did not have adequate structural or staffing safeguards and that Multnomah County had continued to use the facility even though it was aware of these deficiencies. Interestingly enough, it turned out that the patient did not have a mental illness. He was experiencing seizures.
I bring this up because the Mejia Poot family hired a lawyer to sue various parties to this tragedy. One suit involved the police. That case was settled and, as part of the settlement, the Portland police agreed to buy a new device for its officers: taser guns. The police said that they would limit use of the tasers to situations in which deadly force was the only alternative.
So it is ironic that the taser, which was introduced to Portland as a way to avoid the gunning down of mentally ill people, has now become the option of choice for police who merely want to take a mentally ill person into custody. For Portland police, the taser is no longer a substitute for deadly force, but a preemptive maneuver to disable a person whom they see as irrational.
Let's check the stats: In the July 2009 follow up report on the use of force by Portland police, issued by the Force Task Force to Chief Rosie Sizer, data show that when officers use non-lethal force, tasers are the favored intervention for people with mental illness. When choosing among physical control, blunt impact, pepper spray or taser, police used the taser 52% of the time for citizens with mental illness. For all groups (those with weapons, who are assaultive, intoxicated or mentally ill), tasers were used in 225 situations in which no resistance was indicated or the person failed to comply with an order. When people were physically resistant or aggressive, tasers were used 1,116 times.
As the quotation goes, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. So the question remains, do police use tasers unnecessarily when dealing with people with mental disabilities? Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that a police officer in California used excessive force when tasering a man who was nonthreatening and not trying to flee. Among other things, the officer argued that the taser was justified because the man "may have been mentally ill and thus subject to detention."
Here is how the court responded:
To the contrary: if Officer McPherson believed Bryan was mentally disturbed he should have made greater effort to take control of the situation through less intrusive means. As we have held, “[t]he problems posed by, and thus the tactics to be employed against, an unarmed, emotionally distraught individual who is creating a disturbance or resisting arrest are ordinarily different from those involved in law enforcement efforts to subdue an armed and dangerous criminal who has recently committed a serious offense.” [W]e have found that even “when an emotionally disturbed individual is ‘acting out’ and inviting officers to use deadly force to subdue him, the governmental interest in using such force is diminished by the fact that the officers are confronted . . . with a mentally ill individual.” The same reasoning applies to intermediate levels of force. A mentally ill individual is in need of a doctor, not a jail cell, and in the usual case —where such an individual is neither a threat to himself nor to anyone else—the government’s interest in deploying force to detain him is not as substantial as its interest in deploying that force to apprehend a dangerous criminal. Moreover, the purpose of detaining a mentally ill individual is not to punish him, but to help him. The government has an important interest in providing assistance to a person in need of psychiatric care; thus, the use of force that may be justified by that interest necessarily differs both in degree and in kind from the use of force that would be justified against a person who has committed a crime or who poses a threat to the community. Thus, whether Officer McPherson believed that Bryan had committed a variety of nonviolent misdemeanors or that Bryan was mentally ill, this ... does not support the deployment of an intermediate level of force. Click here to read the entire opinion.
The bottom line for police in Portland and elsewhere? It's time to rethink how you're using tasers. Shock treatment is so yesterday.
May 02, 2009
A reflection on the debate about treatment of terrorist suspects and how Oregon cares for citizens with mental illness.
Recent news reports about the official sanction of, and guidelines for, torture (or, if you prefer, "enhanced interrogation techniques"), brought me back a couple of years to some work I did for the government. I was on a monitoring team, checking out a Protection and Advocacy organization in the Midwest. A member of the team had recently returned from Guantanamo where he had worked as a mental health therapist for prisoners.
Unable to resist, I asked him what it was like. I had heard that many prisoners were attempting suicide or other self-harm. He told me that all the prisoners received excellent care and that their psychiatric records were sent to Washington every day for review at the Pentagon. He said that the prisoners were very scary, noting that having someone stare at you who you know would like to kill you was a chilling experience.
Recent documents that the government has released show that medical personnel were always present at water-boarding sessions in order to assure that the prisoner did not die in the process. All treatment of the prisoners was under medical supervision. This, according to defenders of the interrogation techniques, demonstrates that the interrogators were not truly engaged in "torture."
When I recently read that one of the prisoners who received a lot of "enhanced techniques" probably had a psychotic disorder, a number of thoughts came to mind. These prisoners had been sent to a place that was out of the way where nobody could see what was happening. They were often held in segregation even when known to be mentally ill. While it is generally understood that segregation exacerbates mental illness, exacerbation seems to have been the purpose for all prisoners, not just those with mental illnesses. The medical staff who were there to care for them were, at least in the case of the fellow I met, deathly afraid of them. Those same medical personnel monitored enhanced techniques that were performed in order to protect society from harm.
Defenders of the program seem to assume that inflicting mental and emotional pain cannot be categorized as torture. Driving a person into psychosis and suicidal action is one of those items that does not seem to be considered as severe as causing organ failure.
Back here in Oregon, we put many hundreds of mentally ill people into jails, prisons and the state forensic hospital each year. Many end up in segregation for behaviors associated with their mental illness. The staff who oversee them are often scared of them. Officials who are responsible for putting them in custody, often want them to stay behind high walls regardless of their mental condition or their risk of harm because the public is afraid of them. All of these inmates and patients are under some form of medical care and supervision that is provided with the resources and in the environment at hand.
I am not suggesting that Oregon officials are engaging in torture. But are we causing some of our fellow citizens unnecessary mental anguish in order to feel more secure?
The public is now turning to a debate of whether torture is justified if it can yield life-saving information. How do we justify our treatment of Oregonians with mental illness?