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What to do when mental health and criminal justice collide

By Ashley Sutherland, Arizona State University

Although mental health-related police shootings and violence against law enforcement occur nationwide, there’s limited data on these kinds of cases.

During the “When mental health and criminal justice collide” session at the 2017 IRE Conference, Eric Wieffering of the Star Tribune, Kimbriell Kelly of The Washington Post and Josh Hinkle of KXAN-TV in Austin discussed how to collect and create data on a variety of cases involving mental health.

Wieffering discussed the lack of police statistics on mental-health related cases and the process the Star Tribune took to create their database, “Fatal Encounters.” This database documents all the deaths that occurred since January.

The Star Tribune looked at the following records and data to build their database:

  • Death certificate data
  • News accounts
  • Police reports
  • FBI supplementary homicide reports
  • Medical examiner data
  • State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension reports

The Star Tribune collected these reports and then contacted family members of the deceased to determine the prevalence of mental health-related police shootings in Minnesota. The investigation found that, in Minnesota, 45 percent of people who died during forceful encounters with law enforcement had a mental illness or a history of one.

Wieffering said presenting the mental health stories in a fresh way and finding people to illuminate the problem were key to the Star Tribune’s project.

Kelly spoke about The Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that investigated the number of people who were killed by on-duty police officers.

Their investigation found that approximately 1,000 people were killed by on-duty officers in 2015 and that one fourth of these people had a mental health issue. The Washington Post has continued to update this database for 2016 and 2017.

Kelly, a member of the “Fatal Force” team, shared how she starts an investigation:

  1. Visiting the online IRE Resource Center.
  2. Searching the IRE stories library for keywords of her investigation.
  3. When she finds a relevant article: Looking at the IRE Award questionnaire associated with that entry.
  4. Noting the records and data that were involved in the reporting.
  5. Paying attention to the problems this publication had during their investigation.
  6. Filing public record requests and trying to avoid the issues other publications experienced. 

Kelly also suggested:

  1. Going to the Department of Justice website
  2. Going to the “Special Litigation Section Cases and Matters”
  3. Looking at the results of investigations of different police departments
  4. Clicking on a case and pressing CTRL-F and typing in the keywords of your investigation
  5. Reading the parts of the report where your keywords appear
  6. Reading the footnotes of the report
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