On April 28, William Abbe, was shot and killed by officers of the Vancouver Police Department after a violent altercation with another citizen and then menacing police with a length of rebar.
Mr. Abbe was known to many in the law enforcement community as a homeless man suffering from mental illness. He had at least four recent encounters with police. According to many witnesses at the scene, he was clearly experiencing a mental health crisis. Recently, the investigation into Mr. Abbe’s death was appropriately referred by Clark County prosecutor Tony Golik to an outside independent prosecutor.
Mental illness affects 1.4 million citizens in Washington and is on the rise. Four out of 10 people with a mental illness go untreated.
Unfortunately, many of our loved ones and fellow citizens could easily fall into the same circumstances that William Abbe did.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Washington (NAMI SWWA) advocates for the mentally ill and provides services to families and friends affected by a loved one’s illness. In the case of Mr. Abbe, he was well known to the police and mental health agencies. Yet, on this day in late April, his life came to a tragic end. The system failed Mr. Abbe.
What could have been done to decrease the chance that law enforcement uses deadly force to deal with a person in a mental health crisis?
First, early intervention. Mental illness is treatable and recovery is possible. Those afflicted with a mental illness often end up homeless and uninsured. Limited resources and lack of advocacy results in the illness going untreated, producing a spiral of heartache for the individual and their loved ones. Too often, mental illness is only addressed through time in jail with very little continuity of treatment.
Second, law enforcement needs embedded mental health professionals who are quickly available to handle many situations where police are not the best solution. This has been implemented in many cities throughout the United States with great success, saving valuable resources and improving outcomes.
A model in Eugene, Ore., called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) has shown great results with 911 able to dispatch crisis professionals in cooperation with the police department. Clark County supports an Adult Crisis Mobile Unit that was not called to the scene in the Abbe case.
Third, mental health training for a police officer in most of Washington, is usually no more than 40 hours in a career. This is woefully inadequate given that national statistics show 6 percent to 10 percent of all encounters with police involve someone with serious mental illness. Most police would welcome greater training in mental health.
As we consider racial justice in our society and the role of our police, we must also consider a better strategy for helping those with mental illness. Mental illness is on the rise and the law enforcement system should not be the primary means for addressing it.
Those facing mental illness and their loved ones need to know they are not alone.
Mark Mantei is a board member of NAMI, SW Washington. Additional resources on this topic are available at www.namiswwa.org or 360-695-2823.