Comment: Eric Torrell’s tragic story shows more must be done to educate police on mental health

The mistaken killing of a man with Down’s Syndrome in Stockholm last week has sparked a new debate about the police.

Eric Torrell, 20, was confronted by armed officers after various reports were made to them concerning a man with a gun in the city centre.

But that gun was a toy and when Eric did not comply with the order to put down the alleged weapon – his mother says because his autism made it difficult for him to articulate sentences – the police said he acted ‘threateningly’ so shot and killed him.

It is a sickening case, but was this police brutality or an example as to why police should not carry guns? Or perhaps it was a simple mistake or an illustration of police misconduct.

But without a shadow of a doubt it raises some ethical questions. Eric had mental health problems and simply did not understand what was happening around him, and for that he received the worst punishment possible.

He was mistreated and deserves justice, but how can this be achieved?

Many may argue the police officer who took Eric’s short life away should be fired or, at least, penalised, but is this realistic in our universally corrupt systems?

Countless excuses are made for police officers, their gallant duties often outweigh the way they abuse their power.

But they need to be better informed of how to deal with people like Eric who have mental health problems and other disabilities, which leave them unaware of how their innocent actions may be perceived.

Take Derek Bentley for example, a 19-year-old man who had the mental age of a 12-year-old and was executed in 1953 over his misunderstood part in the murder of a policeman.

His family battled to receive justice for him and it took them 40 years to get a posthumous pardon and then another three to get his murder conviction quashed.

That case helped to change the course of the English punishment system.

It is not that people who are disabled should be completely excused for any behaviour, it is knowing the difference between protecting them and cruelty.

Perhaps the Swedish police did truly believe they were in danger, but the sad case of Eric Torrell demonstrates things need to change.

There must be better systems in place to ensure another innocent person doesn’t needlessly lose their life.

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