A Shooting Death in San Diego

Statement by Laurie Flynn, Executive Director, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

Feb 15 2000

Arlington, VA - The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is saddened and concerned by the police shooting death last week of William Anthony Miller, Jr., age 42, who suffered from mental illness.

News reports indicate that Miller required daily medication, but did not always take it. He lived on the streets in San Diego. He struggled with substance abuse. When five police officers answered a report about a man assaulting people with a tree branch, Miller allegedly charged them. Three officers opened fire. He was shot seven times.

On June 14-18, 2000 NAMI is scheduled to hold its national convention in San Diego. Like others, our members—people with mental illnesses, their families and friends—rely on local police. We understand the pressures placed on them. Nonetheless, we hope this shooting will result in a comprehensive review of the San Diego Police Department’s policy on the use of deadly force; crisis intervention teams; and training for police officers at the street level in handling problems that involve people with mental illness.

Unfortunately, the shooting death in San Diego is not unique. During the last year, similar deaths have occurred in Los Angles and New York and other cities around the country. Because of the failures of America’s mental healthcare system, police today often must serve as our front-line psychiatric workers. Many are inadequately trained. Treatment for people with psychiatric conditions also is often severely lacking. In Mr. Miller’s case, outpatient commitment or assertive community treatment (ACT) might have overcome his failure to take medication regularly. It also might have given him support necessary for recovery. Integrated treatment of mental illness and substance abuse—which too many healthcare bureaucracies still try in vain to treat separately—might have enabled him to overcome both disabilities.

A shooting death in San Diego reflects in microcosm the broader crisis of America’s mental healthcare system. The challenge is to ask: "What are we prepared to do about it?" It is a question that not only San Diego and California must confront, but also other states and cities—and all candidates for public office. As the March 7th "Super Tuesday" presidential primary approaches, people especially should be asking the candidates what they intend to do about it. It is a national crisis. It demands national solutions. San Diego should not have to confront it alone.