Police Are Ill-Equipped to Help People With Mental Health Disorders

Osaze Osagie (photo courtesy of the Osagie family)


By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Last month, District Attorney Bernie Cantorna of Centre County, Pennsylvania, announced that his office would not criminally charge three State College police officers who were involved in the shooting death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man, in March. Osaze was shot and killed in his own apartment building. The only reason the officers were there is because his parents called the police to ask for help with their son, who was having a mental health crisis. The police responded to the parents’ plea to help a mentally ill person, and they ended up shooting the young unarmed Black man dead.

Cantorna’s decision wasn’t surprising, of course. Despite the epidemic of officer-involved killings – 992 people were shot and killed by police in the United States in 2018, disproportionately people of color – officers are rarely charged by prosecutors. And when they are charged, they are rarely convicted, even in a case like the death of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old boy who was unarmed and running away from a traffic stop when he was killed by Officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last year. Rose’s death was filmed by a bystander, but the jury acquitted Rosfeld anyway.

In Osaze’s case, there were no witnesses, and there was no video footage. There were four people on the scene; one of them is dead and the other three are police officers. So, Cantorna was left with only the officers’ stories in conducting his investigation. When he announced his decision, Cantorna effectively acted as a mouthpiece for the police. And he refused to name the officers involved, leaving people in State College to wonder who on the police force killed a man.

Osaze came to the attention of the State College police because his family was concerned that he may have been having a mental health crisis. The officers knew this when they approached his door. According to a statement released by the family, Osaze’s father was in the neighborhood, looking for him. DA Cantorna stated that all three officers had crisis intervention training and one had been trained as a crisis negotiator.

And yet, with all of that training and Cantorna’s contention that the officers followed it, Osaze still ended up dead.

The fact is that police officers should not be first responders to people who are in crisis. When they are, the odds increase that the person in crisis will be killed. Research indicates that at least 25 percent of people who are killed by police are in crisis. Helping people who are struggling with mental health disorders is a public health issue and is better left to healthcare professionals.

Some cities in the United States are taking this approach, sending crisis counselors or at least paramedics and nurses to the scene when the situation does not involve a crime in progress. And for the narrow situations in which police must respond, their training needs a total overhaul, to emphasize de-escalation techniques.

It was disappointing and, frankly, a bit frightening that DA Cantorna actually suggested loosening Pennsylvania law to make it easier for police to intervene with people with mental health disorders. State law only allows involuntary commitment when a person is an imminent danger to harm themselves or others. Cantorna’s rationale is that broadening the law will allow intervention before a person is in crisis.

While his reasoning sounds logical, in practice, it would likely lead to more tragedies like the death of Osaze Osagie. As long as police culture and training cling to a mentality of control and violence, giving police more power to engage a person who has not committed a crime is a terrible idea. The public needs less interaction with the police, not more.

According to Cantorna, more than 300 mental health warrants were served in Centre County in 2018. And Osaze’s death was the first officer-involved killing in the State College Police Department’s 100-year history.

That is little solace to the Osagie family, who called the police to help their son, not kill him.

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