Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
October 11, 2013
Last week, Miriam Carey, a mother and licensed dental hygienist from Connecticut, was shot and killed in Washington, D.C., by Capitol Police and Secret Service after a bizarre high-speed chase near the White House and Capitol building.
Carey told police in Connecticut last December that she was a prophet and that President Barack Obama had her and her residence under surveillance. Carey’s encounter with police led to a mental health evaluation.
In an interview with CNN, Amy Carey, one of Miriam’s sisters, said, “I just know that my sister did experience postpartum depression with psychosis.” She said her sister had received “treatment and medication and counseling.”
Miriam Carey’s death at the hands of the police was tragic in more ways than one. Was her death justified, and could better treatment for mental illness have prevented this and similar situations?
Her death was a homicide, and some homicides are not illegal. The law carves out exceptions for some killings that would otherwise be prosecuted as manslaughter or murder. These are referred to as "justifiable homicide."
In this case Carey was shot and killed while still in her car with her young toddler in the vehicle. According to the New York Times, the rules of the Washington Metropolitan Police, though not involved, say that no officer shall discharge a firearm “at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly force is being used against the officer or another person,” and the rules specifically note, “For purposes of this order, a moving vehicle is not considered deadly force.”
Police in Washington are reviewing the use of deadly force by the officers involved. The investigation will reconstruct the car chase and shooting. They will also examine how officers dealt with Carey and whether the proper protocols were followed. That may soothe the anguish felt by some who are concerned by the use of deadly force in this situation.
However, the results of such investigations are predictable. For instance, according to the Times, from 1993 to early 2011, FBI agents fatally shot about 70 people and wounded about 80 others — and every one of those was deemed justified.
The incidence of justifiable homicides by the police has grown nationally by about one-third since 2000, according to James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University.
Even more alarming is a review of police shootings by the Portland Press Herald indicated that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems — not unlike Miriam Carey.
The most urgent question is not whether the police acted appropriately in a frantic moment of real, or perceived, threat to the president, Congress or the well-being of fellow officers or innocent bystanders.
The real question is, "What are we doing as a country to protect and care for some of the most vulnerable members of society?"
According to the Press Herald review, the National Institute of Mental Health found one in four American adults has a mental health disorder, at a time when more than $4.53 billion has been cut from state public mental health budgets.
More Americans receive mental health treatment behind bars than in hospitals or treatment centers. The reason? Hospital beds are extremely difficult to find for the seriously mentally ill. In 1955, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005, there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.
A report just last month by the National Sheriffs Association on justifiable homicide found that “the transfer of responsibility for persons with mental illness from mental health professionals to law enforcement officers has brought with it major problems for the latter.”
The report concludes “that untreated serious mental illness is a large, and still increasing, causal factor in the justifiable homicides associated with law enforcement officers.”
Astonishingly, being locked away in a prison that serves as a de facto psychiatric hospital may not be the worst fate awaiting a mentally ill offender entangled in the criminal justice system.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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