SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – In the last decade, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says he’s looked at 104 officer-involved shootings.
“Conservatively, one-third of those are intersection of people with mental illnesses coming into contact with law enforcement,” says Gill.
To help understand what it is like to experience a mental health episode, Gill agreed to undergo a simulation along with ABC4’s Nicole Neuman.
It was administered by three mental health professionals. They gave each of us a different recording to listen to. The simulation itself was a recording of several voices being played while we were simultaneously asked to perform simple tasks like walking to a park, crossing the street, reading, and doing a word puzzle.
“What was really fascinating about it is the disorientation that you have,” says Gill. “You start to question yourself because you’re trying to concentrate, and you’re trying to answer questions.”
In addition to the disorientation, I experienced nausea trying to find my own inner voice while listening to the recording. At times, music was playing with someone singing and whispering in the background. It was while hearing two to four voices in my right ear, while hearing completely different voices in my left ear. Sometimes the voices were nice. At other times, they were aggressive, angry and mean. Hearing them completely threw off my sense of concentration as well as sense of direction making it difficult to even cross the street.
The simulation is similar to exercises used to train police officers to help build empathy when responding to a person having a mental crisis.
In September, the Salt Lake City Police Department came under fire nationally after an officer shot a 13-year-old boy with autism. In graphic police body camera footage of the shooting, Linden Cameron can be heard saying, “I don’t feel good. Tell my mom I love her.”
More than ever, Gill says cases of people suffering from mental health illness are coming across his desk.
“I think the systemic failure is we’ve taken what is a public health issue and we’ve criminalized that conduct.”
In the end, Gill says the person who loses the most is the one in need of the most help.
“My hypothesis is this: when policymakers fail to address the issues of criminal justice, economic justice, political justice, or public health, those public policy deficits manifest themselves as crises in our community, and then our policymakers rely on law enforcement to be our crisis managers,” Gill explains.
He adds police departments having all officers trained under the Crisis Intervention Team curriculum is just the “baseline” of what’s needed.
“It’s about understanding that when law enforcement is responding maybe we need to have a pair of professionals who are part of that crisis management to be a part of that,” says Gill.
That’s with crisis responders taking the lead, and officers only stepping in if the situation becomes dangerous.
“The police officer that understands that, versus the police officer who is simply saying, ‘I gave a command, and your response is not appropriate to that,’ they’re going to react to your response, not to your condition,” says Gill.
Overall, Gill says the goal needs to be de-escalation and keeping the person suffering the mental health episode “safe”