How some encounters between the police and people with mental illness can turn tragic
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — One summer night, Misty Castillo walked out of her home in Salem, Ore., called 911 and asked for the police, saying her son was mentally ill, assaulting her and her husband and had a knife.
“He’s drunk and stoned and he has mental illness,” Castillo told the emergency dispatcher, again emphasizing his son’s mental state. Less than five minutes later, a police officer burst into the house and shot Arcadio Castillo III as he stood, his mother later said, “frozen like a deer in the headlights”.
“He didn’t try to calm him down. He just walked in and immediately shot my son,” Castillo said.
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Time and again across the United States, people with mental health crises are killed by police, but the exact number remains unknown due to a gaping government information vacuum.
The 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress with bipartisan votes in 2016, requires the Department of Justice to collect and publish data on how often federal, state and local officers use force, how often that force ends up being fatal and how often the deceased suffered from mental illness. But the law does not require police departments to tell the DOJ how many people their officers have killed.
The FBI tries to collect the statistics, but for the first quarter of this year, it estimated that only 40 percent of all sworn law enforcement agencies submitted use-of-force numbers. This figure is well below the level of participation needed to justify policy changes.
Arcadio’s parents had sought mental health treatment for their 23-year-old son, but the system as it stands has let them down. In the weeks leading up to his death, they were unable to diagnose or intern him.
Across the country, in West Virginia, another system failure, another death.
Matt Jones was apparently suffering from a severe manic episode while standing on a highway with a handgun. The police were everywhere, the sirens were blaring. The July 6 scene in the community of Bradley was filmed by a passerby. One officer fired, then others opened fire, killing Jones in a hail of bullets.
The 36-year-old had been unable to get his medication refilled and was suffering from delusions and hallucinations, said his fiancée, Dreamer Marquis.
“He desperately wanted help,” Marquis said. “He knew he needed medication to lead a normal life because he knew he would have manic episodes that would get him in trouble.”
Advocates for people with mental illness say it is clear they are at greater risk of encounters with police resulting in their death.
Hannah Wesolowski, head of advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the deaths of Castillo and Jones “highlight a larger systemic problem that we have in helping people struggling with their mental health or who are in a mental health crisis.
Many communities lack mental health crisis infrastructure, with nearly 130 million people in the United States living in an area where there is a shortage of mental health care providers, she said.
“So when someone can take action because of their symptoms, often the only option is to send in the police, and that can escalate the situation and lead to these tragic outcomes,” she said. “I think we let people down much earlier in the process because we let it get to the crisis point.”
The July launch of 988, a national mental health emergency hotline, is a huge step forward, she said.
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“It’s really driving this development of a crisis system, but it’s going to take years to get there,” Wesolowski said. “I think we are closer to the starting line than the finish line in reinventing our response to the crisis in this country.”
Nearly one in five American adults suffers from a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yet people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a confrontation with police than other people approached by law enforcement, the Treatment Advocacy Center said in a report by 2015.
In Portland, Oregon, for example, 72% of the 85 people who were shot by police between 1975 and 2020 suffered from mental illness, drugs or alcohol, or a combination of the two, according to Jason Renaud. of the Mental Health Association of Portland. The group doesn’t have the numbers for those affected by mental illness alone, but sometimes they’re intertwined. Long-term use of methamphetamine, for example, can cause psychosis.
In 2012, the federal government sued the city of Portland for the disproportionate use of violence by the Portland Police Department against people with mental illness. But since then, the use of force on the mentally disabled has actually increased, according to an analysis presented in federal court.
Renaud said that of 25 people shot by law enforcement officers from various agencies in the Portland metro area since 2012, each suffered from mental illness, substance abuse disorders or both.
Lt. Nathan Sheppard, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, said he could not confirm those numbers. He pointed out that all Portland police officers receive crisis intervention training. The department also created a unit to coordinate the response of law enforcement and the behavioral health system to people in crisis with mental illness and substance or alcohol abuse.
But Sheppard said more needs to be done to respond to what he described as a “public health emergency that has existed for decades in which services and treatments are not readily available or easily accessible to those who need them. mental health treatment”.
“There is a need for more proactive, appropriate and person-centered approaches to helping people with mental illness,” Sheppard said.
A year after Arcadio Castillo III was killed by a police officer on July 9, 2021, his mother is suing the officer and the city of Salem in federal court for failing to use crisis intervention and training tactics before to use lethal force.
A grand jury concluded that the shooting was justified. The Marion County District Attorney’s Office said Arcadio rushed at the officer, who was not wearing a body camera, with a knife raised in a knife stance.
“He never did that. He never rushed it,” Arcadio’s mother said as she stood in the spot in the living room where her son died after being hit by four bullets. She said the family “feels betrayed because someone who is supposed to serve and protect us in times of crisis has taken my child away from me.”
After the Arcadio teenage boy showed symptoms of mental illness, Marion County mental health workers diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder and prescribed him Ritalin, but the anxiety did nothing. only get worse, said his mother. He started using drugs and alcohol to cope. A social worker at a psychiatric crisis center said she could not diagnose Arcadio due to drug and alcohol use, according to Castillo.
Arcadio’s parents tried to have him committed to a mental institution, “but everywhere we turned we were told he wasn’t sick enough to be committed,” Castillo said. “And a week later he was killed.”
“It was so frustrating for me because he just wasn’t getting the right diagnosis, the right treatment, or the right medications that he desperately needed, and his anxiety just kept getting worse,” he said. she declared.
Arcadio’s ashes are kept in a blue teardrop urn on the fireplace of the family’s rental house. His mother plans to have some of the remains placed in cremation collars for her loved ones.
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Video of the murder in West Virginia was shared on social media before Jones’ relatives were notified of his death.
Nicole Jones, her sister-in-law, was browsing Facebook when she clicked on a video that showed a man with shoulder-length red hair walking down a highway being chased by at least eight police officers with guns drawn. The man held his arms above his head, a gun in one hand as he walked away from the officers. He briefly pointed the gun at his own head.
Jones’ heart sank when she recognized the man’s mannerisms – his gait, the way he flipped his hair over his shoulder as he shook his head – and realized he was her brother’s brother. husband.
State police have concluded their investigation into the shooting and have sent their report to Raleigh County District Attorney Ben Hatfield, who will determine whether lethal force was warranted. Hatfield said Matt Jones hijacked at least one vehicle at gunpoint shortly before he was shot.
He had been incarcerated for almost two decades. His brother, Mark Jones, said it was clear to the family that Matt, who was a star baseball player and wrestler, had struggled with mental health issues since childhood. His parents took him to a doctor and tried to find a medicine that would help him.
Matt started a landscaping and tree removal business, but also got into trouble – often drunk driving or driving without a license. Most of his charges stemmed from violating probation, his family said.
In prison, Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication, which helped. But he found himself trapped in a cycle of struggling to get care, going through a mental health crisis, and getting arrested again.
He lived for a time at his brother and sister-in-law’s house in Culpeper, Virginia. Nicole Jones remembers spending hours playing with his children on a swing. But after a while he had trouble sleeping and said he heard voices. He asked her to help him make an appointment with a psychiatrist, but the counselor never called back.
Weeks before his death, Matt ran out of pills and broke down crying, his fiancée said.
Matt didn’t have a driver’s license. His social security card and birth certificate were elsewhere. This made it difficult to book medical appointments, Marquis said. They eventually went to a walk-in clinic that would treat people without IDs, but left after waiting eight hours without being seen, she said.
Mark Jones was working landscaping when he saw the video of his brother being shot.
“I was trying to figure out, ‘what was he thinking?’ “, he said. “What I keep coming back to is that he was lost and really wanted help – not just once, but his whole life.”
Willingham reported from Charleston, West Virginia. Associated Press reporter Gary Fields in Washington contributed to this report.