Police shooting in Alabama highlights challenge of policing mentally ill

Melissa Boarts's family called police on Sunday hoping to get her into mental health treatment. Instead the officers shot her, saying she charged them with a weapon.

Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser/AP
A Montgomery Police cruiser blocks an iced over road in downtown Montgomery, Ala., during the winter storm on Jan. 28, 2014.

The parents of a mentally ill woman are devastated after the police they called to help bring their daughter to a mental hospital accidentally shot and killed her on Sunday.

Melissa Boarts was armed with a pocket knife when officers pulled over an SUV she was driving on Interstate 85 near Auburn, Ala. Officers shot and killed her after they say she charged them, brandishing a weapon.

The Boarts family told reporters that their daughter had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was threatening suicide before her death. They had requested help saving her life, not ending it.

"There was absolutely no justification for it and we are all in deep mourning," Michael Boarts, Ms. Boarts's father and a former officer with the Alabama Department of Corrections, told the Associated Press.

This incident has brought to light the persistent challenges that justice departments face when dealing with people who struggle with mental illness.

Last summer, the Monitor reported on some of these challenges and what police departments in cities such as Los Angeles are doing to divert people in emotional distress away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

The Los Angeles Police Department's partnership with the county's Mental Health Department has been hailed as a national model for mental health and policing reform. Law enforcement officers across the United States and worldwide are interested in the LAPD's mental health policing strategies. 

L.A. keeps a handful of officer-clinician teams on patrol at all times, and also provides clinician support for solo officers.

Although L.A. is not the only city to partner police officers with mental health clinicians, it is one of the most robust and best known. The Monitor reports that L.A.'s mental health strategies saved the city both time and money, while better serving people in need.

So what can L.A. teach law enforcement officers to help prevent accidental deaths like Boarts’s?

"By partnering beat cops with mental health clinicians, the MEU reined in costs associated with frivolous 911 calls," writes the Monitor's Noelle Swan. "It also connected thousands of individuals with counseling and support, reducing incidences of force used on individuals with mental illness and alleviating the burden on overcrowded emergency rooms and the criminal justice system."

Mental health advocates say that prisons are often full of people struggling with mental illness – the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that there are approximately 10 times as many inmates diagnosed with mental health issues than there are residents in state mental health centers.

This means that state resources frequently go toward the costly imprisonment of individuals who would benefit more from mental health treatment facilities.

"Instead of providing people with adequate access to mental health treatment," said Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, "we let them fall through the cracks and languish in jail."

Although around 12 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide use crisis intervention training to respond to individuals suffering from mental health issues, Boarts’s death suggests that may not enough.

Auburn police Chief Paul Register said that his officers had recently undergone mental health response training. Although the Boarts family is threatening a lawsuit, Chief Register says that he believes evidence will show that the shooting was justified.

The Boarts family disagrees.

"We just think it was so unnecessary," said Boarts’s family attorney, Julian McPhillips. "She had a pocket knife on her, and she's only 5 feet 4, maybe 130 pounds against these big old husky law enforcement officers. They could have Tased her or used a stick or something. They didn't need to shoot her."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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