By C J Oakes
On June 14, 2014, Officer Hutchins and his partner responded to a call for help from a woman whose son was mentally ill. On arrival, she walked past the officers with her adult son behind her, declaring him to be schizophrenic and bipolar. He held a screwdriver and the officers shouted for him to drop the screwdriver. He did not, but appeared to lunge out of the door. The officers quickly drew weapons and opened fire; the man hit the ground, bleeding.
Though on the ground, the panicked officers continued to yell at the man, Jason Harrison, to drop the screwdriver. Shortly thereafter, we can hear Officer Hutchins muttering repeatedly in such a way that shows he was clearly upset at how the event transpired. At one point he asked his partner, “Did you get off a round?” He sounded relieved when the answer was “one” for several shots were fired. Clearly, Officer Hutchins overreacted and he seemed to know it. His question could have well-been, “Was it only me?”
Near the end of the video, we hear that the emergency call included that the person involved had bipolar schizophrenia. It is recommended that you watch the entire video from start to finish. Focus not on what happened, but on the reactions of all involved. Listen to the subtle cues which reflect the mindset of those involved. The video is below with commentary to follow…
Are Police Too Ill-Prepared to Handle the Mentally-Ill?
An article in The Atlantic on March 25, 2015 brought this video to the attention of Criminal Justice Law. In the article, the writer Conor Friedersdorf made many excellent arguments starting with the premise, “Why do so many American cops believe that shooting a schizophrenic man dead for failing to drop a screwdriver is an acceptable outcome?”
The article was titled Methods That Police Use on the Mentally Ill Are Madness and was well written and researched. In it, the author argued that police around the nation are ill-prepared to deal with mental health issues and he is correct. He further argued that this particular situation was mishandled; again correct. He further argued that the reactions of police around the nation indicate contempt for and a nonchalant attitude for the lives of the mentally ill. In this, he is partially right; partially wrong.
The Mentally-Ill are Too Unpredictable to be Properly Handled by the Average Police Officer
Just listening to the video he presented wherein the schizophrenic man in a Dallas suburb was killed by Officer Hutchins, one certainly gets a different impression. In at least this instance, the police officer involved was upset.
However, the same pattern holds in many such shootings where there is a body cam. With body cams, we not only get a more complete image of the events, we also hear the reactions of the officer involved.
In another recent video, a police officer shot a man who was clearly armed and clearly threatening others. After the shooting, he is heard to exclaim “Dammit” while pounding his fist on his car once. He was clearly disturbed at what he had done, even though the action was fully-justified.
In the case of Officer Hutchins and Jason Harrison, the subsequent discussions and language indicate that the police officer had never before been involved in a killing. He even seemed to be relatively new to the job, though he clearly had an understanding of the process. He seemed genuinely upset.
Mental Illness, the Law, and Officer-Involved Killings
Why Was Officer Hutchins Upset?
This is the million dollar question. We simply cannot know what was going through Officer Hutchins mind at this point. In fact, we cannot know what went through his mind as he pulled his weapon and discharged it multiple times.
The moments thereafter clearly indicate he was panicked, however, because only someone panicked will continue to command a dying person. This is not a rational thing to do. Panic will cause people to act irrationally. In fact, that appears to be the case with the shooting. He panicked. The officer panicked and shot. As Friedersdorf argues in his article, Officer Hutchins was clearly not ready to handle the type of call he took.
This brings up the matter of mental illness, the law, and officer-involved killings.
Newsweek carried an article in early 2014 that pointed out/titled that Nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness each year.
As of 2015, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provided a fact sheet which shows that the figure is closer to 1 in 4, or about 61 million persons in any given year. However, that figure also represents nearly 14 million with a serious mental disorder like schizophrenia, are bipolar, or experience major depression (1 in 17).
Jason Harrison was bipolar and schizophrenic.
In December 2014, the Huffington Post carried an article titled, 19 Statistics That Prove Mental Illness Is More Prominent Than You Think in which the following statistics demonstrate just how prevalent mental illness is becoming:
- Number of Americans suffering from Mental Illness each year = 61,500,000
- Percentage who believe others are compassionate towards sufferers = 25%
- Number of Americans suffering from schizophrenia = 3,500,000
- Number of Americans with bipolar illness = 6,100,000
What do these Mental Health Statistics Mean for Police?
These are just a few of the figures presented in the Huffington Post feature, but consider what they represent.
What are the odds, given the degree of schizophrenia and bipolar illness today, that police will come into contact with a person with a serious mental illness at some point during a normal week?
It would certainly seem high, yes?
Note too that 25% of those with a mental disorder believe that others will deal compassionately with them. Reverse this figure and we see that 75% of those police will come into contact with will be fearful of the encounter. Put another way, over 46 million people with mental illness will be fearful of a police encounter, yet many of them will experience one.
Thus, as Friedersdorf argues, police officers need to be better-trained for encounters with mentally ill people.
In the video, we learn from the paramedic who responded that earlier in the week, Jason Harrison had threatened his mother with a butcher knife and his brother held him at gunpoint. They said they believed then that something like what happened was inevitable. Indeed.
It is easy to second-guess the reaction of Officer Hutchins and declare him to be unjustified in his reaction. Was his reaction heard in the video because he was worried what would happen to him? That’s likely.
Was his reaction the result of immediate guilt over his handling of the situation? That is likely as well.
Yet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that police today are responding to a situation created years ago by reckless politicians.
Ronald Reagan managed to pass legislation which effectively eliminated state-sponsored mental facilities, placing often dangerous mentally ill persons back into society.
Now Police must deal with those who were previously dealt with in secure state-run hospitals. Families must deal with such individuals the best they can and are often just as ill-informed as law enforcement.
What cannot be overlooked is that if a person continues to behave in threatening ways towards those in their family and the family continues to involve the police, it is just a matter of time before an officer responds who does not know the best way to respond.
Tragedy will happen in time. This is simply a sad fact in dealing with those with mental disorders.
This is not meant to exonerate Officer Hutchins, but rather demonstrate that whereas he likely believed he was ready and able to help in such a situation, he was not. In fact, he DID accept the call, knowing it involved a person with bipolar schizophrenia. Clearly, he believed he could and wanted to help.
It is altogether possible too that Officer Hutchins later experienced his own depression related to the killing. We do not know.
What we do know is that any time a police officer is involved in a killing, policy requires time spent with a mental health professional. This is because no matter how much society would like to believe that police are stone-cold killers, wanting to take lives at any opportunity, this is not the case.
Police officers are people like the rest of us. They have families and feelings. Officer Hutchins, based on his reaction at the scene, undoubtedly experienced enormous guilt in the days to follow. He went there to help and only made the situation worse. This is something he will never atone for and never get over entirely. He killed someone’s son. He killed someone who was mentally unstable. He killed someone he was sent to help.
No Easy Solutions to the Problems Associated with Mentally Ill and Police Encounters
In some cases of police shootings, clearly officers overreacted and were too eager to discharge their weapon. We have seen this with the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland and others.
However, we must not let ourselves get caught in the trap of lumping all police shootings into the same mold, just as we do not want police to lump all citizens in the same mold.
At least in the case of Officer Hutchins, the killing was tragic, but certainly unintended.
Presently in America, there is a movement within police departments to add more professionalism to the uniform. Police departments nationwide are seeking candidates with Bachelor’s Degrees and actively recruiting at University campuses. This is because most involved in law enforcement understand that a higher degree of professionalism will help, rather than harm, in such situations.
Yet, even when someone with an advanced degree is faced with someone wielding a weapon, even if only a screwdriver, the natural response is to defend. Thus, a degree alone cannot account for time on the job.
Specialized Training in Handling the Mentally-Ill is Needed
The only alternative is for law enforcement agencies to restrict who can respond to such calls. In fact, law enforcement agencies nationwide would do well to provide expert training to certain officers for dealing with the mentally-ill.
Yet, given the statistics, this means that in such situations, those calling for help may wait just long enough for their mentally ill loved one to kill them.
Finding a balance is not easy and we in the public need to understand this.
The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing found that in one study of three cities, 92% of police encountered between one to six mentally ill persons in any given month . This poses unique challenges to police officers and Police Departments nationwide are taking strides to handle the mentally ill. However, the numbers of mentally ill persons are growing each year such that supply cannot keep pace with demand.
In addition, those in charge of Law Enforcement need to ensure that the training is not perfunctory. For instance, in at least one mental health/law enforcement facility in Texas, specialized Mental Health training is conducted. The agency provides 40 hours to all personnel. However, the training is woefully insufficient to be effective. Yet that is in a facility specifically dealing with the mentally ill.
Additional Resources Related to Mental Health Issues
Many readers of this site already know that at CriminalJusticeLaw.org, we believe that correct information leads to informed choices. We attempt to remain non-partisan on issues, especially those related to mental health.
On occasion, we highlight organizations which follow the same path.
Following are links provided to us by an organization which combats drug abuse among teens through education. We applaud their efforts and are proud to recommend a visit to the Prevention Coalition website here.
The Prevention Coalition was founded by educators and counselors to provide accurate information related to the dangers of drugs and drug abuse. Read more about them here.