Saving Lives of the Mentally Ill


GOAL: Prohibiting the Use of Deadly Force Against Disturbed or Mentally Ill Persons Not Armed with a Firearm

Okay, I am going to dive in on this critical and controversial issue facing policing today. I do come with experience in the field of defensive tactics. So bear with me.

Some things need to change and change right away in policing. It is simply unacceptable for an elected official to lecture the community that they (read: “young people of color”) need to obey police in order to avoid police having to use force on them.

In my own hometown, Madison, Wisc. a researcher found that 11 of the last 12 people killed by Madison police could be classified as mentally or chemically disturbed.

Yes, compliance by citizens is important, that is as long as a person is rational enough to make that choice. But compliance is the second step in the process – not the first. The first step is for police to establish the kind of relationships with young people of color so that do not feel they have to resist in order to protect themselves from police violence; that they can trust the police knowing that they will not use excessive force on them.

With the mentally ill it is another story. Modern policing requires that police be well-versed in dealing with the mentally ill and be able to use methods other than taking their lives.

In Baltimore, after Freddie Gray was arrested after fleeing police and died in custody some people asked, why did Freddie run away? Why didn’t he submit to his arrest? When some members of the Baltimore community heard the question they were angry. They said Freddie Gray ran away because every time police had stopped him in the past he would get beat up. So who should comply first, community members or should police improve?

Now Madison’s mayor said this after another disturbed person was killed by police; a person suffering from a mental illness. The man approached police with a sharp instrument, did not obey police commands, and continued “aggressing” toward the police officer who then shot and killed him. Was the mayor talking him?

Was trying to tell persons suffering from a delusional mental illness that they must submit to police like any rational person would do? I hope not, because I have yet to see a governmental rule or pronouncements that could bring reality to persons who are suffering from mental illness.

Instead, the mayor, as the chief’s supervisor, needs to be assured, on  behalf of the community, that the police explore ways other than taking the lives of disturbed persons who are not threatening others with a firearm. Guns are dangerous, yet other instrumentality is often less so, and more options can, therefore, be considered.

What must now happen is the electorate, through the mayor, must require the police – the community’s experts in physical restraint and control — do just that. That the police be required to devise methods OTHER than using deadly force in these encounters. (I have written about these alternatives in the pasts on this blogsite.)

Of course, these alternative measures would only be initiated after all reasonable efforts are made to try and contact, talk-down, and de-escalate the person who is in non-compliance with police orders.

It would also seem reasonable to me that the mayor present this directly to the chief of police and require him to solve it. The instruction should go like this:

“Chief, we, the community, no longer wants your officers to shoot and kill persons in these standoff situations. We know these persons might have a sharp or blunt object in their possession – but we want you to develop a way to preserve their lives, not extinguish them. This is creative work and may involve the use of shields, large batons (bo-staffs), electronic control devices, bean-bag guns, nets, shooting into their legs rather than upper torso (“center-mass”) which in most all instances is fatal.

“Your officers’ handguns are capable of rapidly firing more than a dozen shots – they should be able to strike the legs of such a person when they determine use of a firearm is “absolutely necessary.” You may also want to explore the use of your shotguns which can handle a variety of pellet sizes to take down a threatening person without killing them.

“In our community, the sanctity of human life is one of our central values; therefore, we need you and our police to be in the life-protecting and life-saving business. This is essential not only so that officers can go home safely at the end of their shift, but that persons they arrest can also be kept safe.

“When might I expect a report from you on these ‘less-than-deadly-force’ strategies? And how long will it take officers to be suitably trained and directed to comply with these new methods, tactics, and requirements?”





  1. Missed one of the ways to stop a person without harming them or killing them.

    There is nothing more dangerous than a wild animal but yet all over the world the game wardens don’t use bullets or bullet proof armor to deal with them so why don’t police use a tranquilizer dart to subdue a mentally agitated human being?

    If it’s NOT human to kill a lion on the loose instilling terror in a city why is it exceptable to use a dart to put a human to sleep?


  2. I firmly believe it is possible to improve police performance in these circumstances. I also firmly believe it is unlikely that we will. The resources necessary to achieve those improvements are unlikely to materialize. It is even more unlikely that the resources necessary to prevent dangerous encounters between police and mentally ill citizens will materialize.

    I believe we must solve the root cause of this problem. My question is why is the Mayor having a discussion with just the Police Chief? Why isn’t the Mayor having a discussion with the Director of Social Services (or whoever is responsible for mental health services in that community), the Director of Housing, the School Superintendent, non-profit leaders, etc….? Police action in dealing with the mentally ill is the culminating point of a long train of failures. Most mentally ill persons can be identified early in the schools. The mentally ill can be be provided treatment, housing, and employment opportunities well before the police respond to a critical incident, which often results because of failures to provide those levels of care.

    The cynic in me believes that most politicians are more than happy to see the police thrown under the bus when these situations result in harm to the mentally ill. We get beat up, or beat ourselves up, and politicians are spared the hard task of governing. Citizens are spared the hard task of shouldering their responsibilities in a republic. Professionals don’t allow themselves to be thrown under the bus or jump in front of that bus.

    Almost all of those lives can be saved. That outcome though will require more than discussions between the Mayor and Police Chief.


    1. From my experience I found that while it is helpful to get other actors who have responsibility for a social problem such as this into the game, the first progressive step can often best be made by police and then try and drag the others along. “Silo-ing” is the nature of our city departments and the closest I ever came to bring other departments together was when we seriously started implementing the “system improvement” ideas of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. And, I, too, have to think that improving this situation will be difficult if not possible. But why not try? (I could say the same thing for prisoner integration, the reading and graduation rates of our children of color, and medicalizing the drug problem, etc… etc…


  3. The problem Mr. Bowman, other departments that you had mention do not get a higher priority in terms of manpower and resources compare to the police nor are the jobs in those departments are given a higher social and economic status compare to being a cop. I don’t see the police supporting politicians or policies to solve the problems of our society. The police have also abdicated their responsibilities as citizens and actually have worked against trying to solve society’s problems because would mean less resources and money being directed to their own department instead of going other departments that you had mentioned.


  4. Another problem Mr. Bowman, is that these departments are not allowed to do their jobs in the first place. How do you expect the Housing Authority to find houses and apartments for mentally ill/homeless people when the landlords and real estate agents have made it impossible to find affordable places to live and they have lobby groups to make sure that this doesn’t happen?


  5. thank you for the courage to tackle these issues; we need your guidance; I’ve been reading Improving Police for about a year and as a retired teacher I am often referring your blog to other people. We need your guidance and understanding to help us all (I am speaking especially for teachers in public schools who are also parents and grandparents at this point in time). Thank you for all your efforts and getting the discussions that need to take place


  6. Can you direct me to the research about the mentally ill/chemically impaired deaths in Madison? I was not able to find it with a search.


    1. Here’s the list (of the last 12 MPD shootings). There’s an asterisk next to each shooting that was a consequence of severe intoxication or mental illness.

      *2016 Michael Schumacher. Incapacitated by mental illness. Had been in the lake “acting crazy”, then broke into a home and was alone in home after residents exited.
      *2015 Tony Robinson. Incapacitated by drugs. Lawsuit ongoing.
      *2014 Ashley DiPiazza. Suicidally depressed and holding gun to her head; wouldn’t drop it when ordered, so shot. Lawsuit ongoing.
      *2014 Londrell Johnson. Severely mentally ill (schizophrenic) and had stopped taking his medications; had fatally stabbed neighbor and her daughter.
      *2013 Charles Carll. Depressed and suicidal. Was threatening to kill himself with knife and wife called for medical assistance.
      *2013 Brent Brozek. Severely mentally ill. Events triggered by eviction attempt. Emerged from house holding bladed weapon after a standoff.
      *2012 Paul Hennan. Severely intoxicated.
      2009 Gregory Bickford. Pointed a handgun at an officer after having robbed a nearby sandwich shop moments earlier.
      *2007 Ronald Brandon. Heavily intoxicated and suicidal. Holding an unloaded pellet gun.
      *2006 Victor Montero-Diaz. Mentally ill, on cocaine, and highly agitated. Had delusion that someone was trying to kidnap him and had called 911 for help, then locked himself in gas station bathroom.
      *2004 Carlos Toledo-Rubio. Schizophrenic. Incident began when he assaulted ex-girlfriend. Found not guilty by reason of mental disease.
      *2004 Gregory Velasquez. Severely mentally ill. Walked into Red Caboose Day Care, attacked a worker with a meat cleaver and threatened other workers and children.

      From UW’s Dr. Greg Gelbuik:


  7. I am absolutely in favor of less than lethal options, I’ve seen them save lives and every cop should be trained and so equipped, but…then there is reality. Take a look at this video.

    Is it possible that we are simply expecting too much from our police?


  8. If some European police departments (like Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) can spend as much time training their officers (2 to 4 years at the academy) not to rely on their pistols, then yes, they are expecting a lot from their officers not to use lethal force. However, their training and selection of officers has paid off when you look at the how often (or how little) these European police officers had to fire their weapons. Police training in the USA is a joke and needs a thorough overhaul.


  9. If we had put resources, money, and manpower in dealing with mentally ill people, then maybe we would not be expecting the police to do so much. You can blame Reagan for closing the mental hospitals in California and then not helping the counties to take care of the mentally ill. It started a precedent in this country. People would also not developing mental illness or having their mental illness become worse if they did not have to worry about the basic survival of life plus if their illness was diagnosis in a timely manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. There is a lack of awareness and acceptance of disability permeating through society. There is a lot of stigma and misconceptions. People fear the unknown and different. People act on their ignorance, perpetuating the problem.

    Police work is incredibly stressful and anxiety producing. It can drain you emotionally and physically. Officer health, specifically mental health, needs to be better addressed. They can’t do their job if they are dealing with their own issues. The police need better training in defensive tactics but also crisis intervention, disability awareness, interpersonal communication, and community policing. Mental health is definitely a major issue. However, there are other forms of disability-learning, physical, developmental, etc. All disabilities need to be addressed. Officers need to be trained at the academy level but also need required ongoing training. Training should include people outside of the police-health professionals, teachers, disabled individuals, etc.

    Officers can only do their job if they have a good relationship with the disabled community. A disconnect between the disabled community and police will only breed trouble. The disabled community has a long history of being oppressed and feared. The resulting wounds have left scars. These scars perpetuate the misconceptions, fear and ignorance of the police within the disabled community. At the same time, police culture is full of misconceptions, fear and ignorance regarding the disabled community. Until this cultural aspect is addressed no progress will be made even if every other aspect is addressed to its greatest extent.


  11. You definitely made some good points on your post. Better training is greatly needed. Individuals with a disability are often are on the receiving end of poor judgment. Society as a whole must address the problem to make progress. One thing you can do is policing your own words. I’m not talking about being politically correct. It’s about showing courtesy and respect in your words. People come first, not the disability. They are their own person, the disability is only one part of them.

    In your article, this came in the form of two words–suffering and disturbed. Saying a person suffers from a disability, deems the disability more important. It says the person does not dictate his/her life, the disability does. The word disturbed indicates there is something wrong with the person that must be fixed. It is degrading just like the use of retard.

    I have read enough of your posts to know you are an excellent veteran police chief. However, there is always room to grow. I hope you recognize and address your own imperfections to become a shining example of proper police work.


    1. Thank you for your feedback. My intention was to say there are those who are mentally ill who come to the attention of the police along with those who are disturbed, those who are suffering. I apologize if I left another impression. Peace.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.