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  • Michael Mullan

U.S. Police Should Learn from the Irish Police Approach to dealing with the Mentally Ill

Given that many interactions between the police and the mentally ill, in particular emotional disturbance calls, in the US involve the use of guns on the part of the police, and sometimes on the part of the person with a mental illness, the US police should learn from the Irish police’s approach to such cases. The rationale behind choosing Ireland as the subject of comparison is twofold. Not only does Ireland have strict gun control laws, but also the Gardai are also largely unarmed (with only specialized units having firearms).Having said that, Ireland too has struggled with the use of lethal force on those with mental illness, with a small few infamous cases. In particular, there is one case that resulted in a political inquiry into the handling of the situation by police, called the Barr Tribunal which illustrates the issues (similar to the US experience) Irish law enforcement face when dealing with the mentally ill.

As the Report of Joint Working Group on Mental Health Services and the Police states, there is a “dearth” of analysis on this topic in Ireland, even more so than the US. This report found that there is an increase of contact between those with mental illness and the police, largely due to de-institutionalization and increased treatment of the mentally ill in the community.They come in contact with police due to other issues, such as domestic or public disturbances, minor offenses or homelessness. Again, similar to the US, the Gardaí act as frontline actors when it comes to those with mental illness. Similar to the US, in Ireland there have been calls to divert those with mental illness away from the criminal justice system, particularly if a minor crime is involved. Generally, police have more discretion when dealing with minor offenses or where no crime has been committed.

The Irish police have authority to bring those with mental health illnesses into involuntary committal under Section 12 of the Mental Health Act 2001. Under Section 12, people with mental illnesses who pose a danger to themselves or others, can be brought into police custody, be examined by a police doctor and be placed under the care of local community mental health care. Although the Irish police interact and serve people with mental illness and often commit them to mental health services informally, without triggering the lengthy Section 12 procedures, they have no statutory basis for doing so.

The Barr Tribunal investigated the Irish police response to a man with a history of mental illness, who was ultimately shot dead by police after an altercation. John Carthy was aregistered owner of a shotgun. However, this was revoked by the Irish police, as a result ofthreats Mr. Carthy made to members of the public. The firearm was returned to Mr. Carthyafter his psychiatrist stated he was fit to hold the gun. It was this gun that was used during the siege situation with the police. The Tribunal found various errors made by the police, including a failure to reach out to mental health professionals during the siege incident.Furthermore, the Irish police were not only criticized domestically by the Tribunal, but also internationally by Amnesty International. The former director of Amnesty International Ireland has stated that John Carthy’s case is not a once off, but a consistent concern.

Aside from this incident, there does not appear to be many other publicized cases in Ireland by either the media or in case law on the interactions between police and the mentally ill that would be akin to the common practice in the US of standoffs between those with mental illnesses and the police. There is, however, a more unique problem of treating the mentally ill inappropriately while in police custody in Ireland. There appears to be a contrast here between the US experience and the Irish experience of deaths or injuries occurring to individuals with mental illness committed by the police. In the US, due to police yielding guns in almost all cases, any harm that results is likely to occur during the “standoff/siege”period, where traditionally their only tactic is the use of blunt instruments, such as guns and tazers. Whereas in Ireland, given that police are unarmed, there is very little likelihood of police killing an individual with mental illness (the John Carthy case is one of fewexceptions). Instead, any harm or death that occurs as a result of interacting with the Irish police, is likely to occur after arrest.

While there exists procedures to systemically review deaths while in the custody of Irish prisons, none exists for deaths while in police custody, despite calls for this policy change. In terms of investigating single occurrences of death in police custody, this is governed by the Garda Síochána Act 2005. This was introduced after findings of another tribunal, called the Morris Tribunal. Under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 section 102(1), the head of the Irish police, the Garda Commissioner, is under a legal obligation both under domestic law but also under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to refer any possible death or serious harm occurrences that occurred in police custody to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). GSOC can then choose to instigate an investigation. In 2015, the Garda Commissioner referred 52 (15 were fatalities) incidents to GSOC under section 102(1) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. This compared with 41 in 2013, 72 in 2012, 90 in 2011 and 103 in 2010. According to Adeleke et al., the GSOC “has no immediate explanation for this trend.” When cases are referred, GSOC can opt for a criminal investigation in partnership with the Director of Public Prosecutions (the state prosecutor) or opt for a disciplinary hearing.

The most recently available data on the issue states that of all complaints made to GSOC about police behavior, 4% of complainants had psychological disabilities. In order to understand the significance of this statistic, it would be useful to have affirmative official statistics on the presence of mental illness in the Irish population generally. Unfortunately, there is little available statistics on the number of people with mental illness in Ireland. TwoIrish studies shows that between 9% and 14% of Irish people have a mental illness.Furthermore, if Ireland follows European trends, then it is likely that around 6% of Irish people have a mental illness. When we consider these statistics (between 6 and 14%) in comparison to 4% of complainants of police behavior had a psychological illness, this is clearly a worrying trend that suggests people with mental illness are disproportionately mistreated by police in Ireland.

In terms of cases of deaths in police custody, the 2015 GSOC reports that two men with a mental illness died while in the custody of the police. In the first case, police were called to the scene of an alleged disturbance, and the individual was arrested under section 12 of the Mental Health Act 2001. The arrestee was placed in a police vehicle. He was then found to be unconscious and immediate medical attention was sought by the police. Unfortunately, the man died at the hospital due to cardiac arrest, due to Excited Delirium Syndrome, following the arrest. An investigation into the death took place, where it was found the arrest was justified and no police misconduct was found.

In another 2015 case, a man, who the police subsequently discovered had a history of mental illness, committed suicide in the presence of police after the police attempted to seize his car as the car-tax was not up to date. The investigation confirmed that the police officers did not have actual or constructive notice of the mental illness, and did all they could to save the man. No criminal or disciplinary action was taken in this case either.

In a third 2015 case, the police were called to the house of a disturbance where an individual was exhibiting distressed and aggressive behavior, that turned out to be symptoms of his mental illness. The police officers were on notice of the mental illness, as well as the fact that he had recently attempted suicide. After the man was acting aggressively towards police, he was arrested for a breach of the peace. He was placed in the back of a police van without handcuffs. When the police arrived at the police station they discovered the arrestee had slit his wrists with a knife. He was treated for his injuries and thankfully survived. Given the harm that occurred, and indeed what could have occurred (death due to suicide), the police officers were criticized for not placing handcuffs on the arrestee, particularly since they were on notice of his mental health issues. Again, no criminal or disciplinary actions were taken.

These three cases are illustrative of the prevalence of the problem in Ireland. Given that previous GSOC reports fail to list any incident involving the mentally ill, the extent of such interactions are either increasing or are becoming more aware to the authorities. 

We now turn to the issue of guns in Ireland. Although Ireland traditionally has strict gun control laws and policies, Sarma explains that there is a growing movement towards a more liberal legislative model that allows access to guns for “sport-shooting purposes”. Over 15,000 guns are licensed in Ireland annually. A 2004 Irish case has forced the Irish police to issue certificates for handguns. The then High Court Judge Charleton explained in McCarron v. Kearney that the firearms laws is Ireland are so complex that he called for the codification of such laws. However, the firearms law relating to the mentally ill is quite clear. Section 8 of the Firearms Act 1925 lists persons of unsound mind as people not entitled to have a gun.According to the Irish police, “(i)t should be remembered that simply because a person has received treatment in the past for certain illnesses or conditions, such as depression or stress, it does not automatically follow that they are unfit to possess a firearm. It is simply one of the factors to be considered with all other evidence relating to the applicant’s character and history.” However, at the time of the Barr Tribunal applications for firearms did not have a section on mental health of the applicant. Since then, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 has allowed police to receive testimony of medical advisors regarding the applicant’s medical history.

There is reportedly an increase in the rates of both gun ownership in Ireland, but also of gun violence. Unfortunately there is no academic commentary on what role mental illness plays in these increasing rates of gun violence and firearm ownership in Ireland. The United Nations has reported that 12% of the Irish population have a gun in their household. It should be made clear that people of unsound mind, the definition of which still remains in question, are not allowed to own guns in Ireland. In order to own a gun in Ireland, applicants must certify that they have no mental illness that would interfere with their ability to use a gun safely. When making an application, applicants give permission for the decision maker (i.e. a police officer) to contact that person’s doctor or mental health provider such as a psychiatrist. 

In terms of the police, only 20-25% of Irish police are trained to carry a firearm. As such, if ordinary members of the Irish police are involved in an emotional disturbance call, they do not have the option to use a gun as a fatal use of force. This essentially eliminates the possibility of a death of a civilian under such circumstances. While this is clearly an effective policy, it seems very unlikely that, given the Second Amendment gun culture and wide possession and usage of guns by civilians (with 40% of US households owning a gun), that the US police would give up their use of guns. (In fact, certain police departments are trained to routinely point their guns at individuals, such as Baltimore PD, even if a mental illness is present.) This is particularly disappointing when we consider that Ireland has lower crime rates than the US. However, pragmatically, the US police could undertake a policy not to bring firearms to emotional disturbance calls where the person with the mental illness is not armed themselves.

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