SHOTS FIRED: How we investigated the intersection of mental illness and police shootings 

  • This still image from a Haverhill police officer’s body camera shows the encounter with Hagen Esty-Lennon. The town’s attorneys are calling for the videos to be released.

Monitor staff
Published: 12/18/2021 1:25:03 PM
Modified: 12/18/2021 1:24:50 PM

In the last two years, every deadly police shooting in New Hampshire has involved someone with a mental illness.

The Monitor reviewed documents, interviewed family members, and spoke with police and mental health experts over several months to determine why mental illness plays such a significant role in deadly encounters and ways the problem can be addressed.

No state agency regularly collects data on the mental status of those killed by police, which is part of the problem. Understanding the scope and nature of the problem is essential before state agencies can attempt to reduce the number of deadly encounters with law enforcement.

Monitor analysis found that 19 of the 31 people killed by police in the last decade – more than 60% – have had clear indicators of mental illness. This statistic represents the analysis of 10 years of reports from the Attorney General’s office, some of which were publicly posted online and some of which were requested by the Monitor.

New Hampshire is a predominately white state and few police shootings involve people of color, according to news reports, although race is not mentioned in Attorney General reviews. The major factor underlying most deadly shootings has been mental illness.

The Attorney General’s office investigates all cases in which police officers use deadly force to determine whether the use of force was legally justified. The reports often include interviews with witnesses, family members, the officers involved in the shooting as well as autopsy reports and background information about the deceased person.

These reports are not always perfect recounts of the shootings.

Some families of police-shooting victims have raised concerns about whether the Attorney General, the state’s self-proclaimed “chief law enforcement officer,” can impartially review the actions of other members of law enforcement.

However, in the absence of another review committee or agency that reviews police shootings, the reports are often the most thorough recount of fatal police interactions available.

Some determinations of mental status were made based on both Attorney General reports and additional documents, such as medical documents, police reports, and lawsuits, provided by family members or lawyers representing the affected families.

The person killed by police was determined to have a mental illness if they met one or more of the following requirements:

■Family members or friends interviewed by investigators said the person had a mental illness.

■The person was the subject of a successful or attempted involuntary emergency admission to the hospital for psychiatric treatment.

■The Attorney General’s report explicitly stated that the person had a mental illness.

■Immediately before or during the police encounter, the person expressed suicidal ideations.

■The person attempted to or successfully harmed themselves during or immediately before the encounter.

Of the 30 fatal police shootings in the last decade, 19 involved someone with a mental illness according to this methodology.

There were three cases in which the person shot themselves at the same time that police shot them. These were not included in the final count of fatal police shootings that involved mental illness because the coroner ultimately deemed them suicides.

Of the 19 people with mental illness shot and killed by police, nine were armed with a loaded gun, four were armed with one or more knives, one wielded a hatchet, and two were unarmed.

Three held something that resembled a loaded gun, such as a BB gun or an unloaded gun. In the past two years, six people have been shot and killed by police. The Monitor analyzed five of those incidents, as the investigation into the shooting of Anthony Hannon — which occurred on June 14, 2021 — was not completed at the time of publication.

However, a media interview revealed that shortly before Hannon and officers exchanged gunfire, he texted a close friend: “I’m sorry I’m not wanting to live anymore.”

Of the five cases the Monitor reviewed, each involved someone with a mental illness.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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