A Different Kind of Force – Policing Mental Illness

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Across the United States, the responsibility of handling domestic issues with mentally ill citizens has largely fallen into the domain of the criminal justice system. More than half of all prisoners are believed to be mentally ill, 911-calls related to mental health have risen 227% since the late ‘90s and increasingly, a significant portion of law enforcement’s time and resources are devoted to handling calls related to mental illness.

The increased contact between police and the metnally ill over the past few decades has led to fatal outcomes, with at least a quarter of all fatal police shootings resulting in the death of a person with mental illness. Since 2015, at least 1,036 people with signs of mental illness were fatally shot by law enforcement in the US – but fatal police shootings are often underreported and the true number is believed to be higher.

In this moving documentary from NBC Left Field – A Different Kind of Force: Policing Mental Illness – directors Ed Ou and Kitra Cahana spoke with nearly a dozen police officers in San Antonio who are being trained in mental health and de-escalation tactics, as well as responding to mental health 911 calls across the city. The hour long doc explores the complex and oftentimes fraught relationship between the mentally ill and law enforcement in the US. The film does not shy away from the tough questions that plague law enforcement’s central role in acting as a nexus between the mentally ill, their loved ones and the mental health system, which often fails them. The film is told from three vantage points:

  • The SAPD Mental Health Unit, a model program in San Antonio that seeks to alleviate the troubling status quo. The film offers viewers deep access into the inner workings and personal reflections of the ten person unit, tasked with training the rest of the department in mental health and de-escalation tactics, as well as responding to mental health 911 calls across the city. Viewers watche as the officers respond to volatile situations of individuals in the midst of mental health crises. The officers are called upon to make tough decisions that will have lasting effects on the people they interact with. Despite their best intentions, the unit has to contend with the limitations of the mental health care system to which they are delivering patient after patient, day after day.
  • Marketta Thomas-Smith is contending with the death of her brother, Danny Ray Thomas, who was shot and killed by a Sheriff’s deputy on a Houston street corner in early 2018. Cellphone footage of the incident shows that Thomas (who was unarmed at the time) was in a state of crisis, waddling through the streets with his pants around his ankles. According to Marketta and her lawyers, Danny was struggling with untreated mental illnesses ever since his two children were brutally murdered in 2016. The film follows Marketta as she seeks justice for her brother and has difficult conversations with her son and daughter about their uncle’s tragic death. The intimate and touching portrait of Marketta gives the audience a peek into the devastating trauma that family members feel when their loved ones are killed at the hands of law enforcement. Was another outcome possible in Danny Ray Thomas’ case?
  • Christopher Remmey’s story is both heartbreaking and infuriating. He is a 35 year-old man living with debilitating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder amongst other diagnoses. He lives with his mother Martha who is his primary caretaker but also the focus of many of his delusions, paranoia and anger. The police are frequently called to their home, resulting in Christopher living his life in and out of jail and psychiatric wards with little to no relief. The audience follows the mental health unit on one such call where they detain Chris against his will and take him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. But like many other times before, he is released the following morning with no long-term plan for treatment. Fearing for both their own safety and also Chris’ safety, his mother and former girlfriend, Alma, are slowly losing faith that any resolution will come for him.
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