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Mental Illness & Law Enforcement: We’re The Crazy Ones
Published:
4/20/2016 2:47:20 PM

By Barney Blakeney



Lately, I’ve read several newspaper crime stories which indicated how serious the consequences often are that result from mentally ill people who come into contact with law enforcement.

I often reflect on the tragic results of Asberry Wylder’s November 2003 encounter with North Charleston police and the Charleston County Sheriff deputies’ October 2013 police shooting death of Darryl Drayton. But an April 7 story about a North Charleston man whose 2014 conviction for threatening a government employee would have been laughable if it wasn’t so ridiculous.

The guy, who law enforcement know suffers from mental illness, was sentenced to one and a half years in prison on the charge. Cops know the guy. The news report said he’s been arrested ‘dozens’ of times since 1994. In 2013 the guy was being held for wearing masks (whatever that means). A mental health examiner was asked to check him out. His captors knew the guy was bipolar, still when he angrily threatened the examiner, the fools threw the threat charge on him.

Now here’s this mentally ill guy, who’s known to be mentally ill, on lock down for something stupid and authorities who are supposed to be sane are incarcerating him and heaping more charges against him!

On top of that madness, circuit court Judge Knox McMahon sentences the guy on the more serious charge of threatening a government official. The more serious charge carries a higher sentence. Now, two years after the guy’s done the time, an appeal finds he should not have been charged with the more serious crime.

Reading that story had me wondering who in all of that was mentally ill - the bipolar guy or the fools who judged him. When I was in college I worked one summer at the state mental hospital on Bull Street in Columbia. It was an enlightening experience. I left that job also wondering who was more insane, the patients or employees. I’m convinced the employees were the crazy ones. And I use the term crazy loosely.

Not long after that summer, South Carolina followed other states in severely cutting funding for mental health care. I realized then, back in the 1980s, that our communities would gravely suffer if we didn’t provide alternative care for mentally ill people. Without treatment, facilities and other resources, those folks would end up on our streets. Confrontations with law enforcement would be inevitable. The consequences have been tragic.

I read one source which says one out of four people killed by police suffer mental illness. Law enforcement agencies increasingly have become first responders to people experiencing mental health crises. That was the case in both the Wylder and Drayton incidents. But there were others. In one incident, a Charleston policeman was killed after responding to a call for help with a mentally ill man on James Island. He went into the darkened home and was shot by an assisting officer.

The report I read asked two important questions - besides jail, where can an officer take a person for mental health treatment? And why do cops keep getting calls for the same individuals, sometimes only hours after they’ve taken them to a hospital for an emergency psychiatric hold? It said those responses take more time than other calls, mostly involved the commission of ‘nuisance’ offenses, but occasionally involves volatile situations. The report emphasized that such encounters require officers have special training and skills.

While reading the April 7 news story, I was reminded why jail is no place for the mentally ill. But considering Judge McMahon’s decision, he knows something I don’t. In 2014 Sen. Marlon Kimpson focused on a recent circuit court ruling in a case brought against the Dept. of Corrections in 2005. The lawsuit charged the department largely deals with mentally ill inmates inhumanely. A group of inmates sued the department after the death of one mentally ill inmate who spent 11 days lying naked on a concrete floor at Lee Correctional Institution.

Kimpson said this week we have a problem that’s only going to improve with funding for resources directed to mental health agencies. We’ve got people across the state walking our streets in need of mental health care. Many eventually encounter law enforcement confrontations. The worse thing to do is take them to jail, Kimpson said.

Combating the insanity of incarcerating mentally ill individuals is an uphill battle, Kimpson said. It’s ridiculous to put somebody in jail when they should be getting treatment. The time to deal with the mentally ill is before they get killed or sent to the department of corrections.
 

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