Fatal Shootings and Mental Illness: Blaming the Victim


If a schoolchild overturns a desk during an epileptic seizure and it hits a classmate and breaks that student’s foot, no one demands that the child with epilepsy be put into juvenile detention and punished. However, if that schoolchild has a mental illness and accidentally overturns a desk, injuring someone, that child is sent before a juvenile court judge for punishment because of  his/her actions.

This observation came from Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio who spoke last Friday during a Mental Health and Criminal Justice Symposium held in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I gave the symposium’s keynote address.

Judge Teodosio’s point was that our society views mental illnesses differently from other physical illnesses and frequently holds persons with severe mental illnesses responsible for getting sick.

On the same afternoon that Judge Teodosio was speaking, police officers in Montgomery County, Maryland, responded to a nuisance call in Gaithersburg, a suburb of Washington D.C.. A  51 year old man was standing in the bed of a truck yelling profanities and hitting the vehicle with rocks. When he did not obey the officer’s commands, the police sprayed him with pepper gas and then shot him with Tasers. The man stopped breathing and was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

I’ve written before about how Crisis Intervention Team training can often save the lives of both police officers and persons with mental illnesses. I believe every police force in our nation should participate in CIT training.  But the focus of this blog is not CIT. It is about bias and prejudice. It is about blaming people for their mental illnesses.

In Fairfax County, Virginia,  another Washington D.C. suburb, David Masters was fatally shot while sitting behind the wheel of his truck in a busy intersection in 2009. The police had been called by a business owner who complained that Masters, who had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, had taken a potted plant without paying for it. The police officer who fatally shot Masters was fired but no criminal charges were filed against him. Masters was unarmed.

A few weeks ago, a federal judge in New Orleans dismissed a wrongful death suit filed by the widow of Brian Harris who was fatally shot in April 2010 after police broke through his barricaded bedroom door. Harris was lying on his own bed with a knife in his hand threatening to commit suicide. When he didn’t drop the knife, he was shot with a Taser and also shot fatally by an officer with a handgun. (The court unsealed a video of the incident.)


What disturbs me about these fatalities is how little public outcry happened after each of them. As soon as the words “mental illness” were mentioned, the public (including prosecutors and judges) seem to automatically assume that the men got what they deserved.

In two of these incidents, the men were not armed. In two of these incidents, neither man had committed a crime. Yet, all three ended up dead during encounters with the police.

Let’s go back to Judge Teodosio’s schoolchild scenario.

If these three men would have been acting oddly because they had epilepsy — would the public have reacted differently? Would people have been outraged?

I think so.

The fact that there was not much public outcry is a testament to how we blame people with mental disorders for being sick  — and how we marginalize them. That’s wrong — whether it is a student accidentally knocking over a desk during a psychotic break or an adult who disobeys a police officer’s order while disoriented and pays for it with his life.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Many people, including police and lawyers, simply do not believe in mental illness.

    • Many people, including police and lawyers, would simply convert if mental illness became THEIR diagnosis!

  2. Terri Wasilenko says

    Sadly, we have become a fearful society. A sub set of undiagnosed/unmedicated persons with brain illnesses has increased our anxieties to the point of shoot first and check it out afterwards. This small percentage of individuals overshadows the majority of nonviolent individuals struggling with addictions and brain disorders. This is what the public doesn’t understand. The horrific scenarios that have occured in the past few months have not helped persons with mental illness gain any public understanding and empathy.

  3. I read somewhere that the average police officer gets roughly 4 hours of training at the police academy in handling cases for “disturbed persons.” ???? (I hope I’m wrong about this!) If the heart is not open, the mind will be closed. We can’t change minds, but we can get people to open their hearts and see different perspectives which might then open their minds. Why not require police cadets to read first-person perspectives on MI? Start with the Consumer’s point of view, like Dr. Elyn Saks: “The Center Cannot Hold” then read 2 books from the ER Hospital Psychiatrist’s perspectives, like “Weekends at Bellevue” and “Danger to Self” — then 2 more books from the families of the mentally ill: like Pete Earley’s “Crazy” and “Ben Behind His Voices” and so on… I’ve read books from every perspective and it’s the most enlightening, mind-expanding thing anyone can do to better understand mental illness. At least it’s a start…

    • Terri Wasilenko says

      Good idea. These are great resources. The book, Ben Behind His Voices, is another good read to open an officer’s heart and mind.

  4. @terri Wasilenko, thanks for mentioning “Ben Behind His Voices” as a heart-and-mind-opening resource! Thrilled that I will meet so many CIT trainees when I keynote at CIT Int’l conference this October. Thanks for your kind words.
    Randye Kaye, author