Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Skewed and The Skewered

Recently Dinah sent me a link to a Chicago Tribune article about a woman with bipolar disorder who was taken into custody by police. Her parents were desparately trying to get her home so she could get treatment, but she was arrested at the airport for creating a disturbance. Eventually she was bailed out, and several hours later she died from a fall from a building. According to the article, while in police custody she screamed and kicked at the bars of the holding cell while shouting "Take me to the hospital. Call my parents." Not surprisingly, the police told her to shut up. My guess is that they probably didn't use those exact words.

The point of this post isn't to comment on this particular story but in general to discuss what happens when the media covers a confrontation between people with mental illness and law enforcement. There have been a number of incidents like this in our state, and the slant given to these stories is completely predictable. I called it 'outcome-based spin'. In other words, the media will take the viewpoint that favors the victim regardless of who the victim is.

Let me give a couple of examples. I have no personal involvement with either of these cases and they are a matter of public record.

The first case involves 84 year old Dotty. Dotty was a retired school teacher with bipolar disorder. She stopped taking her medication and her neighbors called the police when she placed what appeared to be Molotov cocktails on her front lawn. Police arrived on the scene but she refused to answer the door or the telephone. After examining the bottles, the police determined that they were not actually explosive devices. According to the emergency evaluation laws police are only allowed to transport someone for evaluation if they personally observe the dangerous behavior and the dangerousness is imminent. Since she didn't respond to their attempts to contact her, they entered the house to attempt a personal evaluation. She charged the officer brandishing a knife and was shot to death.

In the second case, 34 year old Fred had schizophrenia and had been discharged from his local community mental health center for noncompliance. He had not received his decanoate shot for several months and relapsed. His wife called the police due to his increasingly fearful and erratic behavior. When the police responded and tried to talk to him, he fired a shotgun through the door of his apartment and killed the officer.

Following Dotty's death, which was covered on the front page of the local newspaper, there was a series of articles and letters to the editor about the sad state of the local police department and their insensitivity to mental health issues. There were letters about the officer's use of force and second-guessing about how the situation should have been handled. The emergency evaluation laws were rewritten and the local police commanders participated in a training program to recognize and work with people with mental illness. (Ironically, the office killed in the second scenario was trained and had experience in this area.) Following Fred's incident the outcry was against psychiatric patients, with implications that anyone with a psychiatric disorder was a potential "dangerous nut case" who should be civilly committed.

Thus we have the two angles: the Horrible Police and the Dangerous Nutcase. The spin that is used is determined by who ends up dead. The complete details of the story are either unknown or unrepresented and you almost never see a balanced presentation.

In the case of the Chicago woman (I know, I said I wasn't going to comment on that story...I find I must) let's consider this:

The officer at the scene of the airport, who actually observed the woman and talked to witnesses, made the decision to take her into custody rather than transport her to an emergency room. The woman's own parents apparently felt she was well enough to fly in a commercial airliner. This implies that she was able to contain or conceal her symptoms to some degree. In the police station she was shouting statements that were relevant to the setting and to her situation. She was not shouting about being the Queen of Sheba. If any of you have been around female pretrial detainees, you know that loud shouting and banging is the norm in that setting. Shouting is a non-specific symptom and police are not mental health professionals. If all the person is doing is shouting, it can be difficult to say if the person is intoxicated, psychotic or just really really pissed off.

Obviously, the actual facts of this case will get sorted out in the course of the lawsuit. I just thought I'd bring it up as a reminder that the facts that get presented in the media are the facts that will sell the newspaper and attract eyeballs to the TV or web site. Sensationalism sells, and the more tragic the victim the better.