More than 40 percent of people killed by Massachusetts police over the last decade were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis, a Boston Globe investigation shows. The deaths are the heavy human toll of an ongoing collision between sick people failed by the mental health care system and police who are often poorly equipped to help, but are thrust into this dangerous role.
The Globe found that 31 of the 74 men and women who were fatally shot between 2005 and 2015 were suicidal or showing clear signs of mental illness, based on interviews, court records, and law enforcement and media reports. Police shot and injured another 24 people who were apparently mentally ill or suicidal in the same period. One third of all police shootings — 55 in all, fatal and nonfatal — involved an apparent mental health crisis.
No one can say how many deaths and injuries might have been prevented if everyone who was shot had received the mental health care they needed. But in many of the cases studied by the Globe, there were opportunities to head off the showdown with police: cries for help that went unheeded; hospitals that discharged patients too quickly; overwhelming responsibility left to struggling people and their desperate families.
It is a problem that has grown steadily worse for police since the 1970s, as Massachusetts shut down 10 psychiatric hospitals and returned thousands of mentally ill people to their communities — often with grossly inadequate outpatient care.
Deinstitutionalization allowed many people with mental illness to lead happier, more productive lives, but it also meant many more mental health crises unfolded in suburban living rooms and on city streets instead of on the grounds of state hospitals. Without adequate community-based mental health care to address them, complex problems escalate until they finally fall to the police.
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