A Different Kind of Force: Policing Mental Illness (2019)

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An unflinching look at the crisis in the U.S. mental health system today by exploring the complex and often fraught relationship between the mentally ill and law enforcement.

Law enforcement officers are increasingly the first responders to incidents involving people with mental illness. Without proper training and expertise, confrontations taking place amid an already-charged atmosphere can escalate quickly, often leading to the injury or death of the individual with mental illness. This concern and numerous high-profile police shootings involving unarmed individuals in a mental health crisis have prompted renewed debates about policing the mentally ill.

In the San Antonio Police Department, a special plainclothes unit is trained specifically to handle mental health calls. For several weeks, we followed the 10-person unit to see firsthand how the program operates. One of the calls the unit received during this time was from Martha Remmey, the mother of a young man with schizophrenia who appeared unable to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t. Martha, who’s called the police on her son Christopher multiple times, is torn between wanting to get help for her son and fearing one of his confrontations with the police will turn deadly.

In Houston, we meet with Marketta Thomas-Smith, who is mourning her brother Danny Ray Thomas. In March 2018, a sheriff’s deputy encountered Thomas in the middle of a Houston road. Thirty-four-year-old Thomas was unarmed and visibly in distress, walking with his pants around his ankles. But the deputy said Thomas ignored his commands and acted aggressively toward him, so he shot him once in the chest. As Marketta continues to grieve, she is also seeking justice for her brother.

A Different Kind of Force—Policing Mental Illness offers an unflinching look at the crisis in the U.S. mental health system today by exploring the complex and often fraught relationship between the mentally ill and law enforcement.

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