Amid outcry, states push mental health training for police

Farnoush Amiri

AP – The officer who Cassandra Quinto-Collins says kneeled on her son’s neck for over four minutes assured her it was standard protocol for sedating a person experiencing a mental breakdown.

“I was there watching it the whole time,” Quinto-Collins told The Associated Press. “I just trusted that they knew what they were doing.”

Angelo Quinto’s sister had called 911 for help calming him down during an episode of paranoia on December 23. His family said Quinto didn’t resist the Antioch, California, officers — one who pushed his knee on the back of his neck, and another who restrained his legs — and the only noise he made was when he twice cried out, “Please don’t kill me.”

The officers replied, “We’re not going to kill you,” the family said. Police deny putting pressure on his neck. Three days later, the 30-year-old Navy veteran and Filipino immigrant died at a hospital.

It is the latest stark example of the perils of policing people with mental health issues. In response to several high-profile deaths of people with mental health issues in police custody, lawmakers in at least eight states are introducing legislation to change how law enforcement agencies respond to those in crisis.

The proposals lean heavily on additional training for officers on how to interact with people with mental health problems. It’s a common response when lawmakers face widespread outcry over police brutality like the United States (US) saw last year following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But none of the proposals appear to address the root question: Should police be the ones responding when someone is mentally ill?

Cassandra Quinto-Collins holds a photo of her son, Angelo Quinto, while sitting with daughter Bella Collins, son Andrei Quinto and husband Robert Collins in Antioch, California. PHOTO: AP

In California, lawmakers introduced legislation on February 11 that, among other things, would require prospective officers to complete college courses that address mental health, social services and psychology, without requiring a degree.

In New York, lawmakers in January proposed an effort to require law enforcement to complete a minimum of 32 credit hours of training that would include techniques on de-escalation and interacting with people who have mental health issues.

The proposal came nearly a year after Rochester, New York, officers put a spit hood over Daniel Prude’s head and pressed his naked body against the street until he stopped breathing. The victim’s family, like Quinto’s, said they had called 911 for help after Prude, who is Black, began having a mental health episode.

Similarly, in Utah, the mother of 13-year-old Linden Cameron called 911 in September because he was having a breakdown and she needed help from a crisis intervention officer. Salt Lake City police ended up shooting him multiple times as he ran away because they believed he made threats involving a weapon.

He was hospitalised, and no weapon was found. The officers were not crisis intervention specialists but had some mental health training.

Last month, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed legislation that will create a council to standardise training for police crisis intervention teams statewide.

At least 34 states already require officers to have training or other education on interacting with people who have physical or mental health conditions. But law enforcement experts say updated training is needed and agencies are far behind.

“The training that police have received for the past I’d say 25 years has not changed significantly, and it’s out of date, and it doesn’t meet today’s realities,” said Executive Director Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “I mean the last thing a mother wants when they call the police is for an officer to use force. Especially in a situation that didn’t call for it because the officers weren’t trained in how to recognise a crisis.”

Some of the new legislation looks to strengthen or improve standards. But because mental health training is a mandate in a majority of states, some advocates and experts believe it may never fully prepare officers on how to respond.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a non-profit dedicated to getting treatment for the mentally ill, concluded in a 2015 report those with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than others.