Police Abuse and the Mentally Ill: An Unacceptable Consequence of Limited Training

By Salvatore Pizzuro

The recent beating of Ronnie Holloway, a mentally ill adult male, by Passaic Police Officer Joseph R Rios III, has brought attention to a long-existing problem. Quite often, mentally ill people, because of communication barriers that may exist as a result of their disability, become the victims of police abuse. In some cases, the abuse leads to injury and death.

Ronnie Holloway was simply walking through his home neighborhood, in Passaic, New Jersey. A surveillance video tape showed Holloway standing outside Lawrence’s Grill and Bar. A police car pulled up and Holloway was asked by a female officer to zip up his sweatshirt. Holloway complied, yet he was subject to a savage beating by Officer John Rios III with fists and a police baton, before being thrown into a police car and taken into custody.

Ronnie Holloway spent the night in a jail cell, with no medical attention paid to his injuries. Worse still, a short list of offenses were fabricated and levied against the disabled adult in order to justify the arrest.

The world would have learned little more about this had it not been discovered that a surveillance video tape from a camera outside Lawrence’s Grill and Bar had recorded the entire incident. Holloway was simply standing on the street corner, committed no evident crime, and did not resist arrest. Clearly, there appeared to be no justification for the policeman’s actions.

Ronnie Holloway does not have a criminal record and is not a threat to society. He is a citizen with a significant disability who became an assault victim. The very people who were worn to protect him became his oppressors.

The incident occurred on May 29, 2009. Since June 5, 2009, the video has been shown around the world. Perhaps more significant than the beating itself is the action of fabricating charges against Holloway, including intent to purchase drugs and resisting arrest. This, in itself, is a serious criminal action, requiring the most complete prosecution of the law against those who helped to facilitate the fabrication.

The victimization of the mentally ill continues. According to Eugene O’Donnell of Newsweek:

From coast to coast, mentally ill people, without reliable access to the costly on-demand care they need, are left to fend for themselves. In the aftermath of the movement in the 1970s to close large mental asylums, many of today’s mentally ill are left to their own devices; they are often homeless and without full-time advocates. With government unable or unwilling to properly serve this population, the criminal-justice system is left to pick up the slack.

Contrary to what many assume, the mentally ill are most often the victimized, not the victimizers. A 2005 study by researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University suggested that persons with serious mental illnesses are 11 times more likely than the general population to be victims of violent crime, with perhaps as many as 1 million crimes committed against those with serious mental-health issues each year.

But relying on the police to address the problem has too often resulted in tragedy, not only on the mean streets of big cities but in quieter places as well. (Newsweek Web Exclusive, July 31, 2008).

The influence of a civilian disability, whether developmental, intellectual, physical, or behavioral, on police behavior during a crisis intervention, has been studied by psychologists, legal experts, and civil rights activists, for decades. A result of this examination was the creation of the “Memphis Model”, a crisis intervention plan by a police agency that has garnered nationwide attention.

The model was initially created because, during emergency situations, police would encounter behavior or communication barriers among people with disabilities that could not be correctly interpreted. The Model was created to enable the Memphis, Tennessee Police to train a Crisis Intervention Team to react properly to people with mental illness during emergency responses.

New Jersey State Assemblyman Fred Scalera (D., 36th Legislative District) sponsored Legislation that will similarly serve citizens with Autism and other disabilities. The Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee released this legislation that has since been passed by both the Senate and Assembly and has become law. Assemblyman Scalera sponsored the bill to establish an autism awareness training course for emergency medical technicians, police and firefighters.

According to Scalera:

Although New Jersey is a national leader in providing care and support for those with autism, it is essential that our first-responder network is sufficiently trained to recognize autism and how to handle individuals who have this disorder.

This new law will require the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) to create a mandatory autism awareness training course and curriculum. Individuals currently certified as emergency medical technicians would be required to complete a continuing education course in autism recognition and response techniques, and prospective emergency medical technicians would be required to complete the DHSS administered course prior to being certified.

Asemblyman Scalera also points out that:

New Jersey’s police officers and firefighters need the tools and training to understand and help individuals with autism. This autism awareness program will make police officers and firefighters better professionals.

The legislative measure will require currently employed police officers and firefighters, along with volunteers, to complete a continuing education course in autism recognition and response. The Division of Fire Safety and the Police Training Commission will also be required to implement the DHSS training course curriculum as part of the training of police recruits and firefighters.

The aforementioned Memphis Model has been used to train Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) to recognize a special population that needs special care, treatment, and service. According to the Memphis Model:

Traditional police methods, misinformation, and a lack of sensitivity cause fear and frustration for consumers and their families. Too often, officers’ respond to crisis calls where they felt at a disadvantage or were placed in a no-win situation.

Unfortunately, it is usually after a tragedy that police departments look for change. As a proactive program, CIT acts as a model committed to preventing tragic situations and finding “win-win” solutions for all persons concerned.

By offering an immediate humane and calm approach, CIT officers reduce the likelihood of physical confrontations and enhance better patient care. As such, the CIT program is a beginning for the necessary adjustment that law enforcement must make from a traditional police response to a more humane treatment of individuals with mental illness.

The City of Memphis lists some of the benefits of the CIT Model:

• Crisis response is immediate
• Arrests and use of force has decreased
• Underserved consumers are identified by officers and provided with care
• Patient violence and use of restraints in the ER has decreased
• Officers are better trained and educated in verbal de-escalation techniques
• Officer’s injuries during crisis events have declined
• Officer recognition and appreciation by the community has increased
• Less “victimless” crime arrests
• Decrease in liability for health care issues in the jail
• Cost savings

Many similarities exist between the goals of Assemblyman Scalera’s Training for First Responders in New Jersey and those of the Memphis Model. Perhaps the most important similarity may be that effective communication techniques should be utilized by law enforcement, fire, and other agencies when attempting to apply crisis intervention at a site where the civilians are compromised by limited communication because of a disability.

Regarding the Ronnie Holloway case, all too often when similar incidents have occurred in the past, there have been efforts by local officials to “cover it up and hide the facts”. Hopefully, the widely released video has prevented this from happening. Nevertheless, the criminal action of fabricating charges against Holloway must be prosecuted. This is not only important to Holloway and all people with mental illness; it is required to protect every private citizen from such abuse.


One Response

  1. I am a bipolar disorder sufferer. I have also been subject to police brutality and fabrication of lies in my case to support their abuses of me. 2 years ago, while pregnant, I was brutally assaulted by police in a small Ohio town. Unfortunately there was no tape to back up my claims and I was further abused by the justice system. I did not have the financial means to defend myself properly and ended up paying for the wrongs committed against me by those who have sworn to protect and serve. I was told by my attorney no less, that law enforcement is there to “create criminals”, not help people. I hate this world.

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