Volume 60

Indifferent To Our Wellbeing: How Legal Standards Controlling Mental Illness Discrimination Lawsuits Prevent Accountability And Progress

by Anna Gyori

Detroit police fatally shoot man after mental health call.

Woman Fatally Shot by DC Police Had Mental Health Crisis at Work.

Florida Cop Shot Man With Mental Health Issues on Third Day In Job.

Man Shot by Trooper Among Many With Mental Illness History. 

Black man shot dead by NYPD officers was mentally ill, not dangerous.

Jury Says Dallas Cop Who Shot and Killed Mentally Ill Man Did Not Use Excessive Force. 

No charges in fatal police shooting of mentally ill Black man. 

Dallas Police Officer gets 2 years of probation for 2013 shooting of mentally ill man.

‘Gonna lose my gun again,’ Idaho deputy said minutes after fatally shooting man in mental health crisis. 

Judge clears Newton police who shot and killed man in mental health crisis last year. 

All of the phrases above appeared in headlines of pieces reporting on the deaths of individuals with mental illness at the hands of police officers. This list of tragic examples illustrates the trend of seemingly endless failures of accountability and displays a national pattern of deadly encounters between the police and individuals with mental illness. One particularly moving article regarding a similar incident asks the question, “Did Anthony Hill Have to Die?” It begs this question in response to defenses of an officer who shot and killed Anthony Hill who the officer said he feared was dangerous because Hill was in the midst of a Bipolar manic episode. The list above is only a small selection of similar encounters. There are many more that have ended in serious harm but not death. Moreover, an even smaller sector of society is disproportionately impacted by fatal force at the hands of police officers when mental illness intersects with race, as despite Black individuals making up just 12.4% of the U.S. population, over 28% of officer-involved shootings resulting in death had Black victims.

Legal accountability is difficult to obtain in cases like the ones referenced in the headlines above, especially in criminal cases against police officers. Outside of the criminal system, victims and their families can seek accountability through civil suits against police officers, their law enforcement departments, and the governing municipality. One of the ways that a suit can be brought is by alleging that a municipality failed to train the officer in question adequately. However, the legal standard which controls these suits—“deliberate indifference”—is extremely restrictive and forces plaintiffs to meet a high bar that does not consider the particular complexities of mental illness. And even if the requirements of this standard are met, plaintiffs who are individually suing police officers still have to overcome the qualified immunity hurdle.

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