Increasingly, police responding to calls discover they involve
the mentally ill. Officers, with little formal training to deal with
bizarre behavior, often feel overwhelmed.
Police have increasingly become the reluctant responders of first
and last resort for people in psychiatric crisis.
It's a job for which they're poorly trained. The results can be
Last Oct. 20, St. Louis police answered a disturbance call at the
home of 47-year-old Randolph Vance. They arrived to find him
hallucinating and delusional. He was convinced that someone was
trying to kill him.
Officers didn't know that Vance was a paranoid schizophrenic - a
person whose illness makes him prone to baseless beliefs that others
are out to get him. They didn't realize that he had stopped taking
his medicine, or that he had smoked crack cocaine earlier in the
As first two and then four officers struggled to restrain Vance,
he collapsed and died on the front lawn of his house in the 5100
block of Kensington Avenue. Relatives and friends later charged that
police beat Vance to death, but a grand jury refused to act on those
On Monday, police mistook a 19-year-old mentally retarded man for
a burglar when they answered a call at his house in the 3400 block
of Oregon Avenue. They hit him at least twice in the head with
nightsticks and used pepper spray to subdue him. Gregory Bell
suffered cuts on his head, bruises on his face and a fractured
ankle. His family says Bell has the mental capacity of a 7-year-
Exactly how often police find themselves in such situations is
anyone's guess. There are no reliable national statistics.
What is known is that about 5 million Americans - 2.8 percent of
the population - suffer from severe mental illness like
schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
It's conservatively estimated that more than 100,000 individuals
with schizophrenia are living in homeless shelters and on the
streets - more than live in all the nation's mental hospitals. Even
more are believed to be in jails and prisons. Most pose no threat to
anyone. But a minority refuse to take their medications, abuse
alcohol or illegal drugs or have never been treated.
Memphis, Tenn., is one of only a handful of cities that have
tried to track police interaction with these people. The effort
started in 1987 after officers shot and killed a man in a public
housing complex who was threatening to take his own life. The
shooting led to the creation of a model police program for helping
people with mental illness.
Since 1987, Memphis police have recorded a 97 percent increase in
calls involving the mentally ill.
The number is also increasing in St. Louis, but no one knows by
Although many kinds of calls bring police here in contact with
the mentally ill, they track just one type - people taken to
hospitals for evaluation.
Those calls rose by about 3 percent between 1990 and last year,
but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"I've seen an increase in the number of people who display signs
of mental illness. There just seems to be more and more of it out
there," said Capt. Joseph Richardson, a patrol commander in south
Police often treat the mentally ill with compassion and common
sense. But the sheer number of such cases, and their complex nature,
has left them overwhelmed.
"I think we're in desperate need of a crisis response team to
take this out of police hands - because it really doesn't belong
there - and put it in the hands of people who know how to deal with
it," Richardson said. "Maybe the police have just lost confidence in
the system. When we have people we're constantly coming into contact
with who are problems in the neighborhoods, something's wrong."
An Unraveling Safety Net
Evidence of the system's failure is everywhere to see.
* It can be found in police logs that show officers inundated
with calls involving the mentally ill. …