The latest episode of documentary series NBC Left Field explores the way the criminal justice system fails people with mental illnesses—and how some officers in a Texas police department are working to save their lives.
“A Different Kind of Force: Policing Mental Illness” views the crisis from three different perspectives. One is the view of Marketta Thomas-Smith, a Black woman whose brother Danny Ray Thomas was killed by a sheriff’s deputy in the midst of a mental health crisis. Another is Christopher Remmey, a Latinx man diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who is frequently forced to interact with law enforcement when his family asks for help managing when he decompensates. The third is the officers of the San Antonio Police Department’s (SAPD) Mental Health Unit, who work to provide competent care and train other officers to do the same.
In a time when 911 calls involving mental illness are up 227 percent since the late 1990s and at least a quarter of all police-involved killings involved people with mental illnesses, the documentary makes the case that law enforcement officers are typically not equipped to be the first responders in these situations.
“I think police have a misconception of mental health. Police don’t understand people with the mental illness because they see a conception of someone that is a threat to them,” says Remmey. “Don’t come at them roughly. Try and soothe them down in order to figure out what’s wrong with them. If he starts [getting] agitated or angry, you just calm down and [say], ‘Okay, maybe we can talk it out. Is there something bothering you [that] we can talk about?’”
Joe Smarro, of the SAPD’s Mental Health Unit agrees that officers need a new set of tools:
I think 40 hours of mental health training in a police academy that’s seven-and-a-half months long isn’t long enough. I think that we should do six to eight weeks of training. I think we should spend a vast majority of our time perfecting communication. And then you can spend a little bit of time training them on how to shoot your gun, because most officers go their entire career never doing that.
Watch the full hour-long documentary: