Israel Examining Unarmed Response to Dangerous Mentally Ill People to Prevent Deadly Clashes With Police

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The scene where mentally ill Shirel Haburain was shot dead by a policeman in Rosh Ha'ayin, central Israel, April 30, 2020.
The scene where mentally ill Shirel Haburain was shot dead by a policeman in Rosh Ha'ayin, central Israel, April 30, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti

The Justice Ministry and Public Security Ministry are testing the use of unarmed teams to deal with mentally ill people reported by family members to be behaving dangerously.

This is being done in an attempt to reduce the danger of a swift deterioration in an encounter between such people and the police, who for the most part have not received suitable training for such incidents, and to avoid criminal proceedings as much as possible.

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The composition of the teams is still under discussion, but will probably include a therapist along with a non-uniformed policeman. The decision about an experimental program will probably be delayed due to disputes about funding in the various ministries. It is estimated that 100,000-150,000 people in Israel are dealing with a serious and chronic psychiatric illness.

A recent incident in Rosh Ha’ayin, where a policemen shot and killed a mentally ill young man provides a reminder of the importance of the new program. Recently a policeman on patrol fired a large number of bullets at 30-year-old Shirel Habura after he stabbed the policeman and wounded him slightly in the leg. Habura was released from a psychiatric facility about six months ago, and the police came to his home after his mother reported that he had a knife and planned to slaughter their pets.

The mother told Haaretz that she complained to the police and the investigator didn’t believe her and told her to go to Geha, a mental health facility, which in turn told her to go to the police. The police said they would take him only if there was violence. She later asked why they didn’t just stop him, even if he stabbed the policeman. The incident is under investigation.

Yifat Raveh of the Justice Ministry Consultation and Legislation Division said, “The classic police solution doesn’t always provide a suitable response. For people with psychological or mental disabilities there is a need for a more preventive treatment” and an attempt to avoid escalation. She added that “only extreme cases are publicized in the media,” but stressed that they were concerned about less extreme situations, in which the mentally ill become involved in criminal proceedings, which can cause serious distress.

Reut Bing, from the same division, says there are various models of intervention teams combining therapists and law enforcers. “The intervention team will receive a call from relatives or acquaintances and arrive at the site. The preferred response is therapeutic: a psychiatrist, social worker or nurse will approach and try to soften the encounter and handle the crisis situation with therapeutic tools.” If the situation escalates, a law enforcement person will become involved.”

Another source said that “it’s wrong for a mentally ill person to see a policeman first. All those involved now understand that. Now we have to decide who will pay for these teams.”

Attorney Sharon Primor, executive director of the Institute for Human Freedom in Psychiatry, which is scheduled to be established soon in the Be’er Yaakov Mental Health Center, says special teams cannot replace a more comprehensive solution.

“In Israel there are no designated health services for people with serious psychiatric conditions,” says Primor. “It’s no wonder that people suffer psychiatric deterioration and the police become the only address. A person who needs maximum support finds himself in a cell or taken by force to the hospital. That’s harmful and disproportionate, because usually these people are not criminals.” Another possible step is giving appropriate guidance during the police training process.

The discussions about these teams began after a request by 10 social welfare organizations, following the death of Yehuda Biadga of Bat Yam, who was shot by a policeman in January 2019. Relatives had asked police to deal with him after he left his house armed with a knife. The police investigative unit closed the file against the policeman who shot Biadga, saying police were told, “He’s going crazy with a knife, … do you want him to hurt someone?”

Various countries use such crisis teams. The model enables professionals, usually mental health experts, to assess the person’s mental state and help him and his family receive therapy in the community. “This method of operation makes it possible to prevent the criminalization of cases which belong to the field of mental health,” according to a 2019 Public Defenders report.

Among those participating in the discussions were Justice Ministry workers – who are checking whether there is a need for legislative changes to organize the activity of the teams – and representatives of the Mental Health Department in the Health Ministry, officials in the Public Security Ministry and police. NGOs advocating for the disabled also participated in some discussions.

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