A community crisis

Statistics on police shootings shine new light on a critical problem

In this week’s cover story, CN&R Staff Writer Ken Smith takes a close look at the shooting death of 25-year-old Desmond Phillips by police officers while he was experiencing a mental health breakdown (see “A deadly mix,” page 18), analyzing the incident in the context of other fatal encounters involving law enforcement.

What he found is that, of the dozens of police killings attributed to gunfire (and in one instance a Taser) in Butte County over the past 20 years, more than half involved mental illness. That’s double the national average. And we know that only now because the statistics have just begun to be tracked. A comprehensive database tracking the number of civilians killed annually by law enforcement simply didn’t exist before 2014, the year an officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Thanks to fatalencounters.org, the project of former Reno News & Review Editor D. Brian Burghart, and a similar database later launched by The Washington Post, we’re getting a clearer picture of the scope.

Desmond’s story is a devastating illustration that the system—or systems—are broken. He clearly needed help—he’d visited the Behavioral Health Department two weeks before his death complaining of being in a hyper-vigilant state and fearing becoming violent. As Smith reports, at least one other victim of police gunfire, Robert Battaglia, had a similar story.

Stakeholders from around the county—including law enforcement, mental health professionals and patient advocates—must summon the will to take on this community crisis. We must not let the deaths of these young men, or any of the other mentally ill victims of police shootings, be in vain.