“I Called Them for Help, and They Killed Him”: Policing the Mentally Ill

18 Feb

A twenty-six year-old man with Down Syndrome was killed by three police officers in Maryland today. His crime: refusing to vacate his seat in a movie theater.

Robert Saylor wouldn’t leave his seat after the film Zero Dark Thirty ended,  saying that he wanted to watch it again. The theater’s employees chose to handle this by alerting three police officers who were working there as security guards. The officers handcuffed Saylor and put him face-down on the ground, causing him to asphyxiate. His death has been ruled a homicide.

You can read more about the death of Robert Saylor here:


This tragedy is not merely an example of several individual law enforcement officers using poor judgment. All too often, when police respond to a call for help, a person with mental health issues needlessly dies.

I first became aware of this in 2008, when I lived in Rhode Island. A gregarious young man I knew named Jay Swift was killed by the Pawtucket police while in the midst of a schizophrenic episode. His mother had called 911 requesting assistance to get him to a hospital; she’d done this before in Massachusetts and the police had transported him to Mass General without incident. She explained her son’s diagnosis, condition, and history to the 911 operator.

When the police arrived, Jay was holding a replica katana sword, which he dropped when ordered by the officers. He allowed himself to be handcuffed and then alternately submitted and struggled because he was frightened and confused. One officer shot him twice while two others hurried his mother away.

Jay’s mother later told the Providence Journal that she was too overcome with guilt to view her son’s body at the medical examiner’s office: “I called them for help, and they killed him. If I hadn’t called them, he would still be alive.”


A grand jury acquitted the involved officers of any wrongdoing. Numerous advocacy groups called for better training and awareness for responding officers. The executive director of the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy told the Journal that the twelve hours of training designated to teach cadets how to respond to calls involving mentally ill persons was “more than sufficient,” even though the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association reported that 10-15% of the calls officers respond to involve at least one person with mental health issues.


In  Portland OR, a report by the Justice Department found that 10 of the 12 people shot by the Portland PD in the last three years were mentally ill. One of the victims, a twenty-five year-old man named Aaron Campbell, was shot after the police responded to a call to check on him because he was suicidal. An officer shot him in the back because he believed that Campbell was reaching into his pants for a gun. Campbell was unarmed, and there were no guns in his apartment.


Also in Portland OR, a homeless man named Jack Collins, killed in 2010, had sought help less than two weeks before he died. In a previous encounter with the police, he’d been passive and obedient, showing no signs of resistance or violence. The caller who reported him to the police claimed that he was drunk and yelling at passers-by, but that he did not appear violent. The police accosted Collins as he exited a men’s room. He was carrying a knife and cutting himself. When he ignored their commands to drop the blade, they shot him four times.

Eleven days before his death, Collins had turned himself in to the police claiming that he was guilty of molesting a child. Sick and confused as he was, he still knew he needed to receive treatment and be isolated from the general public. The police’s response? They “directed Collins to get in touch with a mental health service.”


How the police expected an obviously disturbed and disoriented homeless person to seek out his own mental health services when those of us who are highly functioning and have health insurance have to jump through hoops to get the help we need is a mystery.

More so than that, it’s a travesty, and one that is far too common in this country.

A recent study conducted by the Portland Press Herald found that since 2000, 42% of the people shot and 58% of the people killed by police in the state of Maine had mental health issues. Nationwide, the study concluded that roughly half of all of the people shot and killed by the police every year are mentally ill.  The report predicts that these shootings are bound to increase due to repeated budget cuts in mental health services.


This is the best source of information on the subject because the FBI does not even track how many mentally ill and disabled people the police shoot and kill.

So the million-dollar question is this: If only 4-5% of violent crimes in this country are committed by people with mental health issues, why do the police feel the need to kill so many of us?

The most dangerous aspect of stigma is this conflation of violence and mental illness. Too many people, including police and politicians, assume that anyone with a mental disability or schizophrenia is a “dangerous psychotic” despite readily-available evidence to the contrary. The result is a body count of innocent people numbering in the hundreds each year.

People with mental health issues are at a higher risk of being victims of physical and sexual abuse. We are some of the most vulnerable members of society, especially those of us–and there are far too many–who can’t get the help we need. Yet the very people charged to protect society’s most vulnerable often pose the biggest threat to us.  The ironic nature of these tragedies speaks to this:  The police kill the man whose suicide they’ve come to prevent. A man is shot dead by members of the same police department that rebuffed his pleas to incarcerate him. A mother’s efforts to get help for her sick son end in his death.

Too many of us can’t access or afford the resources required to manage our illness. Unless you’re lucky enough to have insurance through your employer, you’re usually stuck. It’s difficult to buy health insurance if you have mental health issues, and often private insurance plans won’t cover mental health services. There’s a shortage of psychiatrists resulting in an average waiting period of three months for a first appointment, if you can find one who accepts new patients. We’re still weathering the economic impact of the Great Recession and public health services are one of the first things on the chopping block for budget cuts. The more socially and economically disadvantaged among us have no other recourse but state-run psychiatric hospitals, and they won’t accept you as a patient until you pose an “imminent danger” to yourself or others. By the time you qualify for help, you’re more likely to end up in a prison cell or a body bag than in a hospital.

to be continued…


6 Responses to ““I Called Them for Help, and They Killed Him”: Policing the Mentally Ill”

  1. Lindsey Morrison Grant February 19, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    Ignorance! Years ago, when I was going to Portland Community College, Cascade and I met a fellow on the law enforcement track. I was shocked to learn that a requisite for the program was NOT Abnormal Psychology….. or Normal Psychology, for that matter. What’s wrong with this picture?

    • evewc18 February 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      A lot. That twelve-hour training that the RI cadets do actually does make a difference, the cadets were even found to have improved mental health after undergoing it, but it isn’t enough and the veterans on the force don’t get it. It seems obvious to us, but most people are willfully blind. That’s the only conclusion I can reach that makes any sense.

      • Lindsey Morrison Grant February 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

        When I was at Concordia…. some social work class or another, their was a retired County Mountie (Multnomah or Clackamas, I believe). He and I got into it often with his sexist comments, but one time the topic of discussion actually went to suicide (real taboo because of the angst it generates… in the wannabee-counselors). His comments were peppered with references to “them” and “when they think.”
        It really did infuriate me, as insightful as his references were about his POV. It didn’t help that my son had just made an attempt in my home, on my meds. Had it not been for his older sister coming by…we would have lost him and a couple little girls their daddy.
        I could not express verbally my anger at this guy, so I wrote him an email. “Until those in your position can relate, recognizing themselves as a WE and not ‘US and Them,’…inwardly as someone different or superior; until being in need of help is not, in and of itself, a reason to be shot dead; until the adage, “there, but for the grace of God go I,” those who deem themselves as professionals will be less effective, if not inept and impotent.”
        A&D counselor programs have recruited from those in recovery for years, effectively and, I believe, purposely. How can society, educational institutions or NP organizations assume this any different? ANSWER: Ignorance and Prejudice….. centuries old, fully ingrained and seemingly an unquestionable and absolute truth.
        I thank My Higher Power and the insight of some in state government for recognizing The Peer to Peer certification as such a vital part in the spectrum of mental health resources.

  2. Sherrey Meyer February 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    I read your post with interest. It is clear that our country and our cities need to focus on the needs of our victims of mental health issues and not allow ignorance, prejudice, and apathy towards these people become the governing rule of law. One case I mention is that of James Chasse of Portland, Oregon. You can read more at this link: http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-6212-why_did_james_chasse_jr_die.html. Jim Jim didn’t have to die; he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He likely wished he could figure out what was wrong with him so he could fit in with other people. And yet these officers made a decision that he needed to be dealt with. Keep up the good working at bringing awareness to this crying issue!

  3. Laura K Kerr April 21, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Reblogged this on TRAUMA'S LABYRINTH, Curated and commented:
    Comprehensive research and thoughtful reflections on a virtually ignored problem.

    • evewc18 April 21, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

      thanks. I wrote a follow up to this after the Portland PD shot and killed a veteran with PTSD, you can read it if you want in the “Hypergraphia” section.

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