‘Tragic outcomes’: Mentally ill face fatal risk with police
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — One summer night, Misty Castillo stepped out of her house in Salem, Oregon, called 911 and asked for the police, saying her son was mentally ill, was assaulting her and her husband and had a knife.
“He’s drunk and he’s high and he’s mentally ill,” Castillo told the emergency dispatcher, emphasizing again her son’s mental condition. Less than five minutes later, a police officer burst into the house and shot Arcadio Castillo III dead as he stood, his mother said later, “frozen like a deer in headlights.”
“He didn’t try to calm him down. He just came in and immediately shot my son,” Castillo said.
Time and time again across the U.S., people experiencing mental health crises are being killed by police, but the exact number remains unknown because of a yawning governmental information gap.
A law passed by Congress in 2016 requires the Department of Justice to collect and publish data on how often federal, state and local officers use force, how many times that force ends up being fatal and how often the deceased had a mental illness. But the law doesn’t require police departments to tell the DOJ how many people their officers killed. The FBI, for the first quarter of this year, estimated that only 40% of all law enforcement agencies submitted use-of-force numbers.
Arcadio’s parents had sought mental health treatment for their 23-year-old son and even tried to have him committed. But the system, such as it is, failed them.
Across the country, in West Virginia, another system failure, another death.
Matt Jones was apparently suffering from a severe manic episode while standing on a highway with a handgun. Police were everywhere, sirens wailing. The scene on July 6 in the community of Bradley was captured by a bystander on video. One officer took a shot and then others opened fire, killing Jones in a hail of bullets.
The 36-year-old had been unable to get his medication refilled and was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, his fiancée, Dreamer Marquis, said.
“He desperately wanted help,” Marquis said. “He knew that he needed the medication in order to live a normal life because he knew that he would have manic episodes that would get him in trouble.”
Advocates for people with mental illness say it’s clear they face greater risk of a police encounter resulting in their death.
Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the deaths of Castillo and Jones “highlight a larger systemic problem that we have in helping people who are struggling with their mental health or are in a mental health crisis.”
Many communities lack a mental health crisis infrastructure, with nearly 130 million people in the United States living in an area with a shortage of mental health providers, she said.
People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other people approached by law enforcement, the Treatment Advocacy Center said in a 2015 report.
In Portland, Oregon, 72% of the 85 people who were shot to death by police from 1975 to 2020 were affected by mental illness, drugs or alcohol, or some combination thereof, according to Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. The group does not have the numbers for those affected by mental illness alone, but sometimes they’re intertwined. Long-term methamphetamine use, for instance, can cause psychosis.
Lt. Nathan Sheppard, a Portland Police Bureau spokesman, said he couldn’t confirm those numbers. All Portland police officers receive crisis intervention training, he said, but more must be done to address what he described as a “public health emergency … in which services and treatment are not readily available or easily accessible for those in need of mental health treatment.”
Misty Castillo is suing a Salem police officer and the city for the failure to use crisis intervention tactics and training before the officer resorted to deadly force by shooting Arcadio, on July 9, 2021. A grand jury found the shooting was justified. The district attorney’s office said Arcadio rushed towards the officer with a knife in a stabbing position, but his mother denied that.
A case worker at a psychiatric crisis center couldn’t diagnose Arcadio because of his drug and alcohol use, Castillo said. Arcadio’s parents tried to have him committed to a psychiatric institution, “but everywhere we turned we were told he wasn’t sick enough to be committed,” Castillo said. “And one week later he was killed.”
A video of the West Virginia killing hit social media before Jones’ loved ones were informed about his death.
Nicole Jones, his sister-in-law, was scrolling through Facebook when she clicked on a video that showed a man with red shoulder-length hair walking on a highway, pursued by at least eight police with guns drawn. The man held his arms above his head, a pistol in one hand. He pointed the gun at his own head briefly.
Jones’ heart dropped as she recognized the man’s walk and the way he flipped his hair over his shoulder— and realized it was her husband Mark’s brother.
Mark Jones said Matt, who had been a star baseball player and wrestler, struggled with mental health since childhood. Matt built a landscaping and tree removal company but was also getting in trouble — often DUIs or driving without a license or violating probation, his family said.
While incarcerated, Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and placed on medication. But weeks before his death, he was running low on pills and broke down crying, his fiancée said.
He didn’t have a driver’s license. His social security card and birth certificate were elsewhere. That made it difficult to make medical appointments, Marquis said.
Mark Jones was at work landscaping when he saw the video of his brother being shot.
“I was trying to understand, ‘What was he thinking?’” he said. “What I keep coming back to is that he was lost and he really wanted help — not just one time, but his whole life.”
Willingham reported from Charleston, West Virginia. Associated Press reporter Gary Fields in Washington contributed to this report.
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