Treatment by Other Means
By Carol Hawkins
I sympathize with all police officers and their families when a death results from a police action. No officer desires this kind of outcome when responding to a call. In fact, such a tragic result causes the officers who were involved incredible stress and sorrow, although you’d never know that from the press coverage, the complaints that are filed with the independent review board, or
the particularly vituperative screeds of self-appointed police watch groups.
I have watched police officers subdue various individuals over the years. The intensity of the interaction can be shocking. However, I have never been in a street fight and don’t have firsthand experience. I know, from my participation in the Portland Police Bureau’s Citizens’ Academy,
that officers are not trained to fight using the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Such interactions are not meant to be an equal contest between the officer and the person s/he is confronting.
Officers are trained to subdue the person with whom they are fighting as soon as possible and by using just “that level of force necessary” to succeed. We need to keep this in mind when we see police officers handling someone who is violently resisting arrest.
I do know firsthand what it is like to deal with mentally ill individuals, specifically schizophrenics who refuse treatment for their illness – and the legal issues involved in dealing with the mentally ill. Consider the following case.
A very bright and talented (albeit difficult) woman has become increasingly delusional. Her family members try to convince her to seek help, which she refuses. She comes to believe she is secretly married to NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw. She decides that her loving and tolerant (real) husband has conspired against her, leaves him, and moves to an apartment. Here, she intentionally leaves the doors and windows propped open – not just unlocked – because “the archangel Michael” told her to do so. She winds up with bruises and other mysterious injuries which she claims are due to an assault. She spends her meager retirement income on expensive jewelry and clothes and refuses to pay rent, since “Tom” is paying her rent. When she is
inevitably evicted, she moves in with a daughter, who tries to talk her into getting help. She refuses. Her delusional beliefs cause great distress in her daughter’s family. Grandma eventually decides that her daughter and son-in-law are poisoning her and holding her captive. She threatens a handyman with a loaded gun. She decides her 12-year-old granddaughter is spying on her and treats that child abominably. When her daughter remonstrates with her, she steals her son-inlaw’s pickup truck and disappears.
When she is discovered living in a motel 10 days later, the woman’s five children decide to try to have her mental condition evaluated against her will. The daughter takes reams of her mother’s written materials, detailing her delusional beliefs, to the local authorities to have her mother involuntarily committed, diagnosed and, hopefully, treated. It’s the hardest thing this loving daughter has ever had to do. The county assigns her mother a lawyer, who argues that it is the
mother’s “right” to hold bizarre beliefs, such as that she is the rightful heir to the throne of England. The psychiatrist who evaluates the woman diagnoses her as having a paranoid illness, probably schizophrenia, with delusions of grandeur. The judge, however, rules that although he believes this diagnosis is accurate, the woman is NOT a danger to herself or others, nd that although she is, indeed, “gravely disabled” as any reasonable person would understand that term,
she is not “gravely disabled” as the law defines it.
The mother is released, and subsequently disappears - for more than four years. Her children have no idea whether she is dead or alive. When, in an incredible coincidence, the same daughter who took her in finds her again, it turns out that the mother she tried so hard to help had become homeless, had lost her car and all her other possessions, and had spent every penny of her retirement income. She had been found in a park by a kindly deputy sheriff, who noted that she was not your “usual” street person. He had helped to settle her in a motel for transients, where she shared one bathroom and one kitchen with 17 other people.
This is a true story. I am one of this woman’s five children, and it was my sister who courageously took her through the court system to try to get her help - a court system which failed to help her, and instead, by upholding her “right” to her paranoid beliefs and subsequent actions, assured that she would become destitute.
Is this justice?
Consider another real-life example from downtown Portland. One day, when leaving Meier & Frank, I came up behind a man pushing an overflowing grocery
cart into the crosswalk on 5th Avenue. The cart was so full of trash bags that he couldn’t see over the top of it, and he plowed it directly into someone crossing from the other side. That man spoke sharply to him, saying “Watch where you’re going!” and then turned left to cross Morrison Street. The first man pulled a long piece of conduit from the cart and, muttering angrily, started after the man who had crossed Morrison Street – clearly intending to hit him from behind.
Before I could stop myself, I yelled “Hey!” He turned, glared at me and muttered, and shuffled off across 5th Avenue with the cart. This man was obviously angry and dangerous, and this incident is only one of many such interactions I have witnessed in downtown Portland.
I absolutely agree with Chief Sizer and Mayor Potter that mental illness treatment options are totally inadequate here. Mentally ill people are wandering around untreated in this city every day and the City Council hasn’t considered this problem a priority. Now, the mayor is saying that it is the County and State government’s responsibility to provide adequate funding for treatment. I do agree that funding is necessary, but that is not the only issue that must be addressed. I believe the most important issue to be corrected is the legal definition of when one becomes a “danger” to one’s self or others or is considered “gravely disabled.”
The bottom line for me is this: If we can’t compel the mentally ill to accept treatment, why is funding necessary? Schizophrenics are notorious for refusing treatment. They apparently feel hyperaware and superior when they are not on medication. And, once they have been on medication for a time, they may decide they don’t need to take it any more – and they have the legal right make that decision.
The present legal standard which allows the mentally ill to refuse treatment focuses on an individual’s right to believe whatever he or she chooses. This had been an inviolate right in our country (contrarily, this same country in which politically correct restraints are now being placed on free thought and speech). As we have seen in recent months, the delusional person is finally deemed to be a danger only after s/he has injured or killed another person. By then, it’s too late - for the mentally ill person - for the victim - and for the police officers who are required to
I do understand the need to protect an individual’s right to believe what he or she chooses. However, if someone is clearly delusional, why is it impossible to overrule these beliefs long enough to get the individual treated, and to allow a family the right to monitor ongoing treatment? If my mother had been in her right mind, she would not have wanted a narrow legal focus on her “right” to believe things that weren’t true to cause her to lose everything she treasured. Now that she is medicated, she can’t believe that she did lose it all, and she intensely
mourns that loss.
Something needs to change – now. As a culture, we should be ashamed of having allowed these tortured people to end up on the streets, victims of our complacency, our lack of compassion, and our own tolerance of their “right” to wind up homeless.
Mom, I am so sorry that you lost everything. Your children tried – but we were not allowed to protect you. At least today we know where you are and that you are safe.