Thursday, November 19, 2009

Police Need Better Support For Dealing With Mentally Ill People

EDITORIAL THURSDAY 19.11.09.
There is no doubt that the death of Adam Salter is a tragedy. But it seems to have an even greater poignancy when you consider that the Adam’s father called 000 because he needed help. 36 year old Adam was apparently suffering from mental health problems and was stabbing himself with a kitchen knife. When paramedics and police arrived they tried to assist him, but Adam is reported to have leapt to his feet and lunged with the knife at the police officers. One of them made what has been described as a spit second decision to draw her gun and shot Adam in the shoulder. Adam later died in hospital.

At this point it is unclear whether he died from the gunshot or from the knife wounds he inflicted upon himself. Either way however, questions are now being asked about why the police officer used her pistol when she was also carrying a taser. There are also questions about the training and procedures given to police for dealing with such confrontations, because in the heat of the moment a police officer’s actions and reactions are usually the result of the training they have been given. There just isn’t the luxury of taking a moment to stop and think about things before making a life and death decision.

This is a crucial question, not only because of the potentially devastating outcomes of hostile confrontations, but more importantly because of the changing nature of the situations police are asked to deal with. We probably think of police spending most of their time dealing with hardened criminals, and when we think of police using lethal force we might imagine that it’s like the shows we see on TV featuring gun battles with bad guys who must be stopped. But the truth is that more and more violent confrontations involve people who are not necessarily criminals, but are in mental distress. They need help and support, not lethal force.

So the question is whether our police are being given the right training, equipment and support to deal with the growing problem of mentally disturbed people who find themselves in great distress. Do they have the tools that they need to deal with such complex and challenging situations? Or is their training focused more around dealing with the sort of criminals which exist in our traditional idea of police work? Are police trained to reach for the pistol, even in situations where the pistol may not be the best solution?

These questions are of great importance, not only for the benefit of poor unfortunate people who might find themselves looking down the barrel of a police officer’s pistol, but also for the benefit of the police themselves. Although police officers should not be expected to take the place of mental health professionals, they are so often the first on the scene when somebody is in a mentally distressed state. We owe it to our police, who do put their lives on the line for our safety, to give them the best possible training, so that they are properly equipped to deal with such situations.

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