STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Much of this nation's debate over police conduct turns on how officers deal with mentally ill individuals. It's a debate that centers on stories like this next one, which we should warn will last about four minutes and may not be appropriate for all listeners. In September, police responded to a 911 call in Lancaster, Pa. Police shot and killed a man who ran toward them with a knife. That man had schizophrenia. Brett Sholtis, with our member station WITF, has been speaking with the man's family.
BRETT SHOLTIS, BYLINE: Rulennis Munoz remembers the phone call. It was her mom. Her brother Ricardo was shouting in the background. Ricardo didn't want to take his medication prescribed for paranoid schizophrenia.
RULENNIS MUNOZ: My mom called me, told me to call crisis so they can come pick him up. I called crisis.
SHOLTIS: The county crisis service told her to call Lancaster police, so she dialed the nonemergency number. What Rulennis didn't know is her sister called 911 also trying to get help for 27-year-old Ricardo. The family was calling for help, but police believed they were responding to a domestic disturbance. When Ricardo saw an officer at the door, he got a knife and ran outside. The officer shot him.
MUNOZ: Within five minutes of me getting off the phone with them, my brother's dead.
SHOLTIS: It's a tragedy for the Munoz family, but it's not that unusual. According to The Washington Post, police killed more than 1,000 people in the past year alone. And, like Ricardo, a quarter of the people who police killed had a serious mental health diagnosis. Ricardo's mother, Miguelina, says she tried for years to get help for her son.
MIGUELINA PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
SHOLTIS: Here, Miguelina's words are being translated by one of her attorneys, Daisy Ayllon.
DAISY AYLLON: "When I first noticed major problems was when he went to college. That's when I started noticing more abnormal things, like he was speaking to himself."
SHOLTIS: Miguelina says the family couldn't find a psychiatrist who would take Ricardo as a patient. Instead, Ricardo would end up getting hospitalized for a few days at a time.
PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
AYLLON: There was an occasion where he was at the hospital for three days and another occasion...
PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
AYLLON: Six days. There was an occasion where a judge was involved and the judge determined that he should be released home. My question is, why would the judge allow him to go home if he wasn't doing well?
SHOLTIS: People with a family member with mental illness should learn what resources are available locally and plan for a crisis, says Angela Kimball, advocacy and public policy director at National Alliance on Mental Illness. But Kimball's quick to say, that's easier said than done. Many of the services she recommends, like crisis hotlines and special response teams, aren't available in most parts of the country. And because it can be hard to know how much training first responders will have and what will happen, Kimball says to call 911 only in extreme-crisis situations.
ANGELA KIMBALL: That is currently the only option open for most people across the country. But we don't think that that ought to be the only option. People ought to have an alternative, like 988. And regardless, they ought to be able to have a non-law enforcement response to mental health crises.
SHOLTIS: The 988 number is a new suicide prevention line. It's been signed into law but is not yet operational. Ricardo's sister, Rulennis, says they'll never know how he might have reacted to someone other than a police officer.
MUNOZ: We don't know what he was going through mentally or what he actually saw because he would see things.
SHOLTIS: She emphasizes that he was never a threat to the family. He was someone who was sick and who never got the help he needed. For NPR News, I'm Brett Sholtis.
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