Fatal run-ins between cops, mentally ill raise worries

George Hunter
The Detroit News

When police officers cross paths with the mentally ill, the results can be tragic.

Police, mental health experts and relatives of people with mental illnesses describe a common cycle: A patient who needs long-term treatment is turned away because there’s no bed space, sending him back onto the streets, where he encounters police.

Those confrontations can be dangerous — or deadly — for both officers and citizens.

At least five police officers have been shot since 2016 in Detroit, three fatally, by mentally ill suspects. Nationwide, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other citizens, according to a 2015 Treatment Advocacy Center study.

“We have an epidemic in Michigan and across the nation of people with mental illness making contact with law enforcement,” said Mark Reinstein, president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, an Okemos-based policy analysis and advocacy group.

“It’s disheartening that so many of our people get into trouble, often because their mental illness isn’t under treatment,” Reinstein said. “It’s unfortunate for the person suffering from mental illness, and it’s extremely hard on law enforcement.”

On Jan. 24, a man who reportedly suffers from mental illness fatally shot Detroit police officer Glenn Doss.

Police say Decharlos Brooks, 43, called 911 to report a domestic disturbance. When Doss and other officers arrived, Brooks allegedly opened fire, shooting Doss in the head. The 25-year-old officer died after four days in Detroit Receiving Hospital.

Brooks, who according to Detroit police chief James Craig is mentally ill, is charged with murder and is in the Wayne County Jail awaiting trial.

“I’ve seen this play out too many times,” said Craig, whose best friend, Los Angeles SWAT officer Randy Simmons, was killed in 2008 by a mentally ill man.

“There will be some type of disturbance, where we have to go in and stabilize the situation,” Craig said. “Because the officers are dealing with a mentally ill person, the situation often gets escalated, and someone gets hurt or killed.

“Even if there isn’t a violent encounter, if we make the determination that a person is a danger to self or others, we put them in a 72-hour hold. They’re usually given initial treatment and then released, only to go back onto the streets and engage in more criminal activity.”

That criminal activity often lands them in jail.

“We’re probably the largest mental health institution in Michigan, which is unfortunate,” said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who said 27 percent of the county’s jail inmates are taking psychotropic medication — with countless others suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental problems.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the number of mentally ill inmates in his jail has skyrocketed over the past 20 years.

“When I started 20 years ago, 8 percent of our population was on psychotropic medication; now it’s 30-plus percent,” Bouchard said. “The continuum of mental health services has whittled over time, and as a result, jails have become the de facto dumping ground. We’re not suited for treatment, so ‘dumping ground’ is the only thing to call it.”

Former Detroit police officer Antoinette James said her 23-year-old daughter Erica Hayes has been in and out of jails and hospitals after being diagnosed with narcotics-induced bipolar schizophrenia.

“I’ve tried to get her into long-term inpatient treatment, but it’s a revolving door,” James said.

With no long-term beds available, James cared for her daughter, who went missing Jan. 17. Hayes told her mother she was stepping outside Greater Grace Temple on Seven Mile to smoke a cigarette. She hasn’t been heard from since.

“She was on several medications, so I’m worried,” James said. “Today I heard there were three bodies found. It makes you think ‘Lord, I hope it’s not my daughter.’ But they identified the bodies; it wasn’t her.”

Reinstein said while the problem is nationwide, people in Michigan have a particularly difficult time getting mental health treatment.

“According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, we’re one of the five worst states in the country in our per-capita percentage of state-operated psychiatric hospital beds,” Reinstein said. “And those beds are filled to a large degree with forensic patients,” those awaiting diagnoses to determine if they’re mentally fit to stand trial.

“Even when those hospitals take our people, the stays are too short to stabilize them,” Reinstein said. “We surveyed the community mental health boards in Michigan three years ago, and the average length of stay for their clients in community and private psychiatric hospitals was between six and seven days, and many are out in three or four days. That’s just not enough.”

Marjorie Lesko said she got down on her knees and begged a staffer at University of Michigan Medical Center to admit her son, Lane, who had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder, and bipolar mania.

Lane Lesko, 19, wasn’t admitted to the hospital. On June 21, 2016, he was killed by a New Hampshire police officer after he brandished a BB gun that resembled a semi-automatic pistol.

“Lane was as much a victim of the cop’s bullet that killed him as he was of the mental health system that killed him,” Marjorie Lesko said.

Lane Lesko had stolen a car and led police on a chase before reportedly pulling out the BB gun. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office ruled the shooting was justified.

Lesko believes her son would be alive if he’d gotten the treatment he needed.

“It was almost impossible to get treatment,” she said. “My son wanted help. He was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Wayne State police officer Chris Powell said he regularly encounters people suffering from mental illnesses, both on campus and in the nearby Cass Corridor.

“We deal with people who are off their meds, and when that’s the case, someone who may not be violent normally can become violent very easily,” he said. “We have no way of knowing they’re mentally ill when we’re faced with that situation.”

The issue strikes a nerve with Powell, whose best friend, former Wayne State officer Collin Rose, was killed Nov. 22, 2016, by Raymond Durham, a mentally ill homeless man.

Four months later, prosecutors say Durham shot Detroit officers James Kisselburg and Ben Atkinson, who are recovering from their injuries.

Durham was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but the Michigan Forensic Center ruled him incompetent to stand trial. Wayne County prosecutors asked for an independent evaluation. Durham is scheduled for another competency review on Friday.

“That’s the downfall of our profession: We never know what we’re dealing with,” Powell said. “I can envision how Collin’s encounter went down; (Durham) was out on the streets, living in an abandoned car. We’ve all had that situation so many times. But (Durham) just didn’t want to go to jail that night, and it turned into a violent encounter.

“It’s frustrating dealing with mentally ill people, when we aren’t equipped for that. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not safe for us.”


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN