Minneapolis police respond to
mental illness and use of force issues

(MINNEAPOLIS) -- Last week, the third mentally ill person in a year was shot and killed by Minneapolis police. Understandably, the incident once again focuses public attention on the use of deadly force and how to better serve those who cannot control their own behavior.

That focus is appropriate and needed. On Nov. 1 Alfred Sanders was killed less than 24 hours after his relatives tried unsuccessfully to have him committed. Officers shot him after Sanders had been driving erratically and reportedly drove his car toward police.

A few days later, Minneapolis police announced plans for better training to help officers understand those under mental duress. Several officers are studying training methods that work in other parts of the country and will be training Minneapolis cops based on those successful models. Law enforcement leaders are also considering the use of Tasers, weapons that disable instead of kill people who are out of control.

And the department is expanding its contacts with health providers to better understand the needs of that community. Rather than simply closing ranks behind the decisions to use deadly force, the department is showing sensitivity to the problem.

But even when law enforcement goes the extra mile to try to understand, deaths and injuries may still occur. It is unrealistic to expect that officers will always have advance knowledge of a perpetrator's mental state _ especially as they make split-second decisions about responding to aggressive or life threatening behavior.

The larger concern is how to both respect the rights and liberties of those with mental problems and protect them and the general public from harm. To that end, some suggestions offered by Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, merit more attention and discussion. Having dealt with mental illness in her own family, Greiling believes the state's mental health care system must change to allow early intervention and treatment.

Under current Minnesota law, a judge must determine that a person is dangerous to himself or others before being committed. But a person can appear sane and rational during a brief hearing before a judge, only to leave the courtroom and have a psychotic episode. Based on the criteria they must follow by law, emergency crisis centers either deny admission to some who need help or do not hold others for longer than 72 hours.

Clearly, there are gaps in the mental health response system that need work. Greiling and Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, will ask the 2001 Legislature to consider lowing the bar for involuntary commitment, including short-term hospitalization of up to 30 days. Lawmakers should seriously consider their proposals to help prevent tragic deaths and injuries in the future.

(iSyndicate; Star Tribune; Nov. 11, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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