Police Use of Force against People with Mental Illness, Children in Schools

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians, according to a report covered by Democracy Now! in September 2016. The Treatment Advocacy Center published its report, titled “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” in December 2015. The report’s authors wrote, “Given the prevalence of mental illness in police shootings, reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.

Nermeen Shaikh and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed John Snook, one of the study’s co-authors and the director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, after the death of Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California, in September 2016. El Cajon Police responding to a call for emergency psychiatric aid shot Olango several times, and he died in hospital later the same day. The Democracy Now! report described Olango’s death as “just the most recent in a string of police shootings of primarily men of color with mental illness or disability,” linking it with an incident the week before, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in which police shot and killed Keith Scott, a 43-year-old father who reportedly had suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2015, and a July incident in North Miami in which a police officer contended that he mistakenly shot an African-American behavioral therapist, Charles Kinsey, when he was aiming for Arnaldo Rios Soto, a 26-year-old autistic man.

Snook described the Olango incident as “a nightmare scenario for families with a loved one who has a mental illness, and for law enforcement themselves” before asking, “When someone is having a medical emergency, why are we requiring law enforcement to step in?” Making the point that law enforcement officers are not trained as mental health professionals, Snook added that we need to “get away from this situation where we wait until someone is in a crisis before we provide care.”

Meanwhile, additional news stories—including Rebecca Klein’s reporting for the Huffington Post and the Hechinger Report in August 2016—document the frequency with which school-based law enforcement officers have used Tasers on children. Klein reports that, since 2011, there are at least 84 documented instances of “school-based police officers using Tasers against K-12 students.” All the students were 12-19 years old when the incidents occurred. They were hit by Taser or stun guns used by school-based police officers, who are sometimes called school resource officers. According to Klein, the figure is “a gross underestimation because not every incident is reported, and no state or federal organization track how often children are zapped at schools.”

The numbers of police officers in schools have gone up since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. New “tough on crime” and zero tolerance policies were also implemented after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, when the Obama administration funded a program to hire one thousand school resource officers and counselors. Klein reports that “in 1997 only 10 percent of public schools had police officers; in 2014, 30 percent did.”

As Regis Duvignau of RT News reports, just over a month into the 2016-17 school year, four students have already been tasered by school-based officers, including two girls from a Florida high school who were fighting. In that case, RT News reports, a sheriff later explained that the Taser was “the safest way” to break up the fight.


“Study: People with Mental illness are 16 Times More Likely to Be Killed During a Police Encounter,” Democracy Now!, September 29, 2016, https://www.democracynow.org/2016/9/29/study_people_with_mental_illness_are.

Rebecca Klein, “Set to Stun,” Hechinger Report, August 11, 2016, http://hechingerreport.org/set-to-stun/; see also, Huffington Post, August 11, 2016, http://data.huffingtonpost.com/2016/school-police/taser-incidents.

Regis Duvignau, “4 Kids Tased by Police since School Year Started,” RT News, October 1, 2016, https://www.rt.com/usa/361267-kids-tased-police-school/.

Student Researcher: Devin Georgia (Sonoma State University)
Evaluators: Officer Kelvin Baker (California Police) and Peter Philips (Sonoma State University)