Veteran Police Officer Writes About His Brother’s Serious Mental Illness, Describes Dangerous Encounter, “I Almost Shot A Mentally Ill Suspect.”


(1-22-18)  The writer of this letter is a veteran police officer in a major city who emailed me after reading my book, CRAZY:  A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness. 

Dear Pete,

I have a mentally ill older brother named Tom.*

He’s been sick since he was 18, and while reading your book, I immediately felt a bond with you and your son, Kevin. My brother’s story is not much different from your son’s.

Tom is/was a very bright individual, probably smarter than me, but at age 18, he was with his girlfriend and another individual smoking pot when he had a traumatic episode. He was rushed to the hospital and doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. Over the course of the next several months, he became worse and worse and my parents didn’t know what to do. His brain was failing him and he began hearing voices. He told us God was speaking to him, as well as Jim Morrison from the Doors.

I was still very young when this was occurring, I would guess 1984/1985? I was just 12 or 13 and my older brother was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. My parents, as well as my younger sister and I didn’t know how deal with this.

Tom was completely out of his mind!

 I remember my brother being sent to a state hospital.

My parents and I visited him there and I recall the dismal conditions. I was absolutely horrified seeing the other individuals my brother was being housed with. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be the best comparison.

When you wrote in your book about the 9th floor of the Miami Dade jail, I kept having flashbacks of how ill the people in my brother’s hospital were – catatonic, drooling on themselves, others talking to the walls. As a young teenager, I began to cry, wondering why my brother was in this place. He couldn’t be this bad, could he?

Eventually, my brother was released and allowed to come home. The years that followed were absolutely brutal for my family. Doctors didn’t know what medicines to give my brother, essentially, he became a guinea pig, throwing everything they could at him to try and stabilize his brain.

My brother was bounced around from halfway house to halfway house, always running into trouble.

Trouble just seemed to find him.

People would ask him to buy them booze, drugs, etc. and he would always be taken advantage of. Ultimately, he ended up back at home and still lives with my parents to this day. His medicine seems to be stable now and he’s able to function day-to-day, however, every couple of years I will get a call from my police department stating that they have my brother and want to know what they should do with him.

Each time, I explain that he is sick and request that they wait for me to come get him. The officers have been pretty good at letting me take him back home.  When he’s on his meds, he’s pretty good, some people don’t even know he’s ill. When he’s off his meds he’s “bark at the moon batshit crazy”. Thankfully, my parents watch over him very closely and get him back on track.

Unfortunately, my parents are getting up there in age and won’t always be around to take care of him. I’ve assured them that I will always make sure he has a safe place to live and I won’t let him live on the streets. Your book terrified me with the stories of the subjects living on the streets and being beaten, taken advantage of, and wandering around like lost souls.

I can’t have that happening to my brother. 

I think every law enforcement officer in the country should be required to read your book. When I was a young patrol officer I almost shot a mentally ill subject who was wielding a knife. It happened about 15 years ago when my partner and I were called to a disturbance at an apartment complex. As we arrived, a young male and female came running down the stairs exclaiming, “He’s up there, he has a knife!”

They told us their friend was suicidal and was acting irrational. We asked if anyone else was in the apartment and the two replied they were not sure. This kind of perplexed us because the apartment was rather small. At this point in my career, I had only six years on the department and was still fearless.

Generally, officers won’t enter a residence unless they can determine that other lives are in jeopardy.

If you have a single individual making threats, our procedure now is lock down the area, call it a barricade situation and call in our Special Assignments Unit. But when my partner and I rushed up to the 2nd floor apartment, we found the door open. As soon as we crossed the threshold, we were confronted by a young, white male, in his early 20’s, holding a large kitchen knife. We immediately drew our guns, which we pointed at the male, commanding him to “drop the knife.”

He said  ‘No” and told us that he wanted to die.

My partner and I were stuck.

Here we were, guns drawn, in a tiny apartment, facing a distraught young man who was telling us he wanted to die.

“Suicide by cop.”  I did not want to shoot this guy.

We warned him that if he took one step forward, we would be forced to fire but that was not how we wanted this emergency to play out.  He was well within the lawful 21 foot ‘danger zone’ that we’d learned about at the academy. At that distance,  a potential attacker could reach and stab you before you could draw your weapon and fire. We already had our guns drawn, but he was within 8 to 10 feet of us. We knew damn well that we could just shoot him and be justified.

My department had recently obtained tasers but only two or three officers, who were working on our shift, had them and neither was with us. We were still in a stand-off when our supervisor arrived. He remained  outside the doorway, calling for a taser while we kept our guns aimed at this clearly unstable and suicidal suspect.

In these situations you are so focused that time often seems to slow down. We must have waited for 15 or 20 minutes for an officer with a taser to arrive.

Holding a person at gunpoint for that long, trying to negotiate with them, begging them to not take one step forward, can be very tiresome, both physically and mentally.

The taser equipped officer finally arrived and I could hear our team standing behind us outside the open door formulating a plan. In a purposeful move, the officer with the taser entered, stepped between us and fired.

It was a polyester dogpile after that. I remember trying to pull the knife away from him and when he was given another jolt, I was shocked by the electricity flowing through his body. I screamed in a high pitched  squeal and my former supervisor still laughs to this day when he talks about me being shocked.

Thankfully, we were able to successfully subdue the subject and get him handcuffed. My partner and I put him in our patrol car and advised him that we were taking him to a mental facility. During the ride, he became calm and thanked us for not shooting him.

That’s right. He thanked us and acknowledged that he needed help and was very upset about something that I don’t even remember now. What I do remember is that I didn’t have to take his life.

I don’t know what happened to this individual, but what I do know is he was very lucky that my partner and I arrived that night.  We didn’t join the police force to take lives. We joined to protect and serve them. Another officer might have simply shot the individual.

I would have been 100% justified in the shooting, but looking back, I would have felt absolutely terrible about it. He could have been my brother, your son Kevin, or some other mentally ill person who just needed proper medication and guidance.

*Tom is a pseudonym. 

Popular Blog: Are “Chemical Imbalances” Real Or Myth


(1-19-18) FROM MY FILES FRIDAY. Written in March 2011, this slightly edited blog about chemical imbalances remains one of my most read. That term was popular back then but now has fallen from favor. What hasn’t changed is that despite the spending of millions of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of hours of research we still don’t understand the causes of serious mental illnesses. Happy to read your comments on my Facebook page about neuroscience progress during the past seven years, about which, I might not be familiar.

Chemical Imbalances: Real or Imagined

One of the first terms that parents and others often hear when someone shows symptoms of having a mental disorder is “chemical imbalance.” It is the catch-all that often is used to explain why someone suddenly shows signs of major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. I remember being shocked when I used this term in a news article and was later confronted by a self-identified, anti-psychiatry reader who informed me there is absolutely no evidence that mental illnesses are real and/or caused by biological problems inside the brain.

So I was happy when I read: SHRINK RAP: Three Psychiatrist Explain Their Work written by Dinah Miller, M.D. Annette Hanson, M.D. and Steven Roy Daviss, M.D..

The doctors, who write a popular mental health blog offer their take on “chemical imbalances” and I found their comments helpful.

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Baltimore Incident Is Simply The Latest In Patient Dumping: Hospitals And Jails Find Creative Ways To Rid Themselves Of Patients

(1-15-17) The viral video footage of a woman, clad only in a hospital gown, being literally dumped on a Baltimore street by University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) employees last week in freezing temperatures outraged viewers.

In a mea culpa press conference, the hospital’s top official, Dr. Mohan Suntha, declared: “We take full responsibility for this failure,” and left the impression that patient dumping is rare and a freak occurrence.

Sadly, that’s just not true. It has been going on for decades and now hospitals are not the only ones finding creative ways to rid themselves of poor patients with serious mental illnesses rather than treating them.

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“We can’t let you see him, we can only let you know that he’s here.” Mother Searching For Homeless Ill Son.

(1-12-18) Another excellent story by Washington Post writer Terrance McCoy about mental illness, cold temperatures and homelessness, a much commented on discussion in a blog that I posted last Friday. 

Her ‘perfect child’ was now schizophrenic and homeless. Could she find him on one of the year’s coldest days?

Kerry McBride at her home in Arlington, Va., on January 5. During frigid weather, she worries even more about her son, who has paranoid schizophrenia and is homeless. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
  Published in the Washington Post
Another morning of questions began with the most basic of them all. Where was her son? Was he okay? Or was he frozen on some street corner?Kerry McBride, 46, looked outside. The windows of her Arlington townhouse were fogged over, but she could still see the ground was covered with snow. It was 25 degrees and the temperature was expected to sink into the teens by the next day, and here she was, fretting, while her boy was out there, somewhere.

The questions were always with her, but they haunted her on days like today, when McBride, a career State Department employee, was home from work with nothing to do while she recovered from a recent surgery but dwell on what had happened to Michael, a 23-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, undergoing his first winter of homelessness. She thought about how quickly the illness had seized him. And how, in just three years, he had gone from a sweet and loving college student to delusional, homeless and alone.

“I’ve got to see him,” she was saying again and again. “I’ve got to see him.”


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One In Four Fatal Police Shootings Involve Individuals With A Mental Illness

(1-9-18) In October, I posted a blog by a Crisis Intervention Team trained police officer who argued that law enforcement should not be sent to answer non-emergency mental health calls. The Washington Post today published an editorial that documents that one-in-four fatal police shootings involve someone with a mental illness. Why? The most obvious reason is because we are not helping individuals with mental disorders before they reach a crisis stage.

Almost 1,000 were killed by police last year. Here’s what to do about it.

A police academy graduation for the New York City Police Department. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

POLICE SHOT and killed 987 people in the United States last year. That is two dozen more than in the year before and nearly identical to the number of people killed by police the year before that. The lack of appreciable change in the numbers is a depressing sign that, though much attention has been focused on this issue in the past three years, authorities are falling short in devising and implementing solutions.

The sobering look at the use of deadly force by police is the result of an unprecedented effort by The Post to track fatal shootings in the aftermath of the national debate sparked by the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, outside St. Louis. The ongoing project, using local news coverage, public records and social-media reports, has logged details of 2,945 shooting deaths. The Post’s compilation has pointed up the inadequacies of the FBI’s record-keeping, which relies on voluntary submissions from police and shows far fewer shootings. More importantly, the project has revealed patterns in the shootings that could lead to more effective action. The decline in the number of unarmed people shot suggests, for example, that heightened awareness and scrutiny may result in police showing more restraint before using deadly force in some circumstances.

Particularly striking is how often mental-health issues play a role in police shootings. In 2017, 236 people — nearly 1 in 4 of those killed — were reported to have been experiencing some form of mental distress at the time of their encounter with police.

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Virginia Slowly Moving Forward With Diversion Programs For Individuals With Mental Illnesses.

(1-8-18) Kudos to Alexandria Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter for assigning a senior supervisory prosecutor to screen cases for persons whose arrest stemmed from some obvious mental illness and not criminogenicity.

Prosecutor Porter has put Molly Sullivan, a chief deputy prosecutor, in charge of reviewing arrestees for possible participation in a diversion program that will offer them treatment instead of languishing in jail. The goal is to address the underlying cause of crimes committed by people with severe mental illness, decrease the length of any incarceration, and to avoid it entirely in those cases where the safety of the community can be served by pre-trial services and mental health treatment and/or probation, according to reporter Denise Dunbar, writing in the Alexandria Times.

“As a society, we simply must do a better job in addressing mental illness. Far too often, police, the sheriff and prosecutors are asked to be the primary treatment providers for the mentally ill, and it should be obvious that we have neither the expertise nor the resources to adequately address the myriad of issues raised by mentally ill citizens,” Porter told the newspaper.


However, more than thirteen years ago when I was doing research for my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, the prosecutor’s office in Miami Dade Florida had one of its chief prosecutors doing exactly what Sullivan has been assigned.

Yes, that was more than a decade ago!

Virginia residents should be asking if their jurisdiction has a Molly Sullivan. (The state’s constitution requires that every county and every city be served by a commonwealth’s attorney.)

The diversion step that Commonwealth Attorney Porter is taking is part of a sequential intercept model concept designed to identify those who are being incarcerated primarily because of their illnesses – typically on charges such as trespassing and loitering – and divert them into treatment.

Such programs have proven to save tax dollars and help persons recover who are sick.

Porter’s actions are another step in several that are happening across the state, primarily because of the efforts of state Senator Creigh Deeds (D.) and Delegate Rob Bell (R.), Sadly, our state remains behind others.

One glaring example of footdragging is the state’s refusal to launch mental health courts as part of diversion efforts. In Virginia, you can’t even utter that term. You have to refer to them as mental health “dockets” or “behavioral dockets” because state legislators and many prosecutors are afraid they will be accused of giving special treatment to defendants.

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