By Eric Tucker, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Department lawyers investigating police agencies for claims of racial discrimination and excessive force are increasingly turning up a different problem: officers’ interactions with the mentally ill.
The latest example came in Baltimore, where a critical report on that department’s policies found that officers end up in unnecessarily violent confrontations with mentally disabled people who in many instances haven’t even committed crimes.
The report cited instances of officers using a stun gun to subdue an agitated man who refused to leave a vacant building and of spraying mace to force a troubled person — said by his father to be unarmed and off his medications — out of an apartment.
Though past federal investigations have addressed the problem, the Baltimore report went a step further: It was the first time the Justice Department has explicitly found that a police department’s policies violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The finding is intended to chart a path to what federal officials hope will be far-reaching improvements, including better training for dispatchers and officers, diversion of more people to treatment rather than jail and stronger relationships with mental health specialists.
“Through the course of our work in the last several years on this bucket of issues, we’ve seen how important it is to get at the mental health issues as early in the system as possible,” Vanita Gupta, head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview.
Civil rights officials say the Baltimore report builds on work they’ve done in investigating the treatment of the mentally ill in various settings. In Mississippi, the Hinds County jail in June agreed to better screening for mental illness as part of a settlement, and the Justice Department sued the state as a …