AELE Analysis: When Force Against The Mentally Disturbed Is Justified

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The scenario is one that’s often in the headlines and ultimately in the courts: A distraught and frightened family calls for help in controlling a mentally disturbed or suicidal relative. When cops respond, the confrontation escalates and the subject ends up injured or dead from police use of force. The family claims the force was excessive, and sues.

What guidelines do courts offer to trainers, officers, and force reviewers in these circumstances?

That question is addressed in a 2-part analysis recently launched in the free Monthly Law Journal published online by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, the leading case monitoring and legal training organization for the policing profession.

“Police confronting a disturbed or suicidal person face a number of dilemmas,” AELE states in introducing the series. “Under what circumstances can they use force to subdue or restrain the individual? When can ‘significant’ levels of force or even deadly force be justified? At what point should the use of force end? What tactics are best to accomplish the goals of protecting the public, protecting the subject, and protecting the officers involved? Can officers be held liable for failure to prevent a ‘successful’ suicide?”

Part 1 discusses and provides links to 9 different federal court decisions that reflect the prevailing judicial thinking on such questions.

In some cases, the written opinions carry Force Science implications. In Untalan v. City of Lorain, for example, a 6th Circuit court dealt with a situation in which a violent person with schizophrenia lost control of a butcher knife just before being shot. In its opinion, the court discussed reaction-time considerations in ruling that the shooting was justified. In another 6th Circuit case, Summerland v. County of Livingston, contextual cues were involved in the shooting of a deranged male who postured as if pointing a long gun at deputies but who was in fact not armed with a firearm.

Despite the variety of circumstances in the cases presented, the courts’ conclusions are in agreement, AELE points out. Force, including lethal force, can be considered reasonable and justified when used against disturbed persons in the defense of others—even if the ironic result is the death of a subject whom officers were summoned to save from suicide.

Even the anticipation that an unstable individual may engage in conduct that could pose a serious risk of harm to others may be sufficient. In Long v. Slaton, an 11th Circuit case, an Alabama deputy was found to have acted reasonably in shooting to death a mentally disturbed suspect who took possession of a marked squad car and began backing away. The court ruled that the decedent could have used the car to injure or kill someone else, especially since it cloaked him with the “apparent authority of a police officer.”

In addition to deadly force, the cases cited include those involving beanbag rounds, tear gas, and pepper spray.

Part 1 of the series is posted now at: www.aele.org/law/2012-02MLJ101.html

Part 2 is expected to be available on AELE’s website no later than Feb. 29. Part 2 will discuss appropriate options for restraining disturbed or suicidal persons, what actions should be taken after resistance ceases, and where to find additional resources and references.

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