Mental illness is not a crime

November 5, 2013

Following police killings, the media often spin stories about how officers fired because they felt threatened--but as Hannah Wolfe reports, the cops are the real threat.

THERE'S BEEN mounting anger toward racial profiling and police violence over the last few years, along with a demand for police accountability. So what should happen to appear front page center in the October 23 Wall Street Journal? A heart-tugging tale of the emotional torment a young cop suffered after he was "forced" to shoot and kill a mentally ill man (armed with a knife), who reminds him painfully of his older brother with bipolar disorder.

That's what I call perfect timing. It was the day after the annual nationwide October 22 day of action against police brutality; the day after New York City mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota conjured racist images of "wilding" youth from the 1980s in defense of his Rudolph Giuliani-style tough-on-crime campaign; and one week before a federal appeals court blocked the ruling of a judge who found that the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy violated the constitutional rights of its vicitims.

Not to question or minimize the extent to which the young officer was, in fact, traumatized by the event in question--but why this story, so very un-representative of the many cases of police murder, and why now?

New Yorkers gather in protest against the police murder of Mohamed Bah
New Yorkers gather in protest against the police murder of Mohamed Bah (David Shankbone)

It must have been quite a challenge for the reporter to find a case of police murder involving two white men (featured in photos) in the Midwest, thus sidestepping the issue of racism.

It must have been even more challenging to find parents of a murder victim who are more than forgiving toward the police for killing their son. His mother is quoted as saying, "We're so grateful our son didn't shoot a bunch of people." A letter she and her husband wrote to the police states: "We hold no ill feelings and extend our sympathy to the unfortunate police officer forced to fire on Billy."

The more usual response by families of those murdered by police is rage, despair, a sense of grave injustice, and loss of any faith they may have once had in the police, as a recent Democracy Now! interview with mothers of police murder victims makes painfully apparent. The stories of Mohamed Bah and Walwyn Jackson, murdered by NYPD in 2012, are detailed in a story appearing late last year at

WHAT STORY did the Wall Street Journal choose to focus on in its article "Lives of Mentally Ill, Police Collide"?

In Hilliard, Ohio, officer Tony LaRosa is called to a traffic accident scene. As he approaches (alone), he receives word that the driver appears mentally disturbed, is covered in blood after cutting his own throat, and is wielding a knife at passersby.

According to the report, the mentally ill man alternately rushes toward, and flees from, the officer when he approaches the scene. When the man "closed the distance between them with alarming speed," the officer shoots twice, thinks he has missed, and shoots twice more--this time killing Billy Lane.

Accounts of police murders in the media tend to rely exclusively on the police version of events.

The majority of the article focuses on the guilt and torment that LaRosa suffers in the ensuing years, and his increased sympathy toward his older mentally ill brother. LaRosa was put on temporary administrative leave, and when a county grand jury didn't press charges, LaRosa returned to active duty.

The problem is that the story is spun as if police and the communities they "serve" are on equal footing, suffering equally from the consequences of failures in the treatment of the mentally ill.

A graph featured in the article shows violent crimes dropping since 2000, but "justifiable homicides" by police rising at the same time. Experts (affiliated with police) speculate that the increase in "justifiable" homicides is driven by a rise in attacks on police by the mentally ill.

In fact, many of those killed by police pose no danger to anyone other that themselves. And it is clear that their "violence" is often provoked, or at least exacerbated, by the presence of police.

Is it really the police whose lives are in such danger? According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), 127 law enforcement officers were killed nationwide in 2012. Almost half of these deaths resulted from traffic accidents, not gunfire or any form of "attack." The rate of deaths is the lowest since the NLEOMF started tracking it in 1962, and down by almost 50 percent since 2011.

How many people were killed by law enforcement officers in 2012? According to the FBI: 587, with 387 of these considered "justifiable." While the data on law enforcement officers killed is painstakingly accurate and highly publicized, the statistics of those killed by police are known to be drastically undercounted.

A study of killings by police from 1999 to 2002 in Central Florida found that the national databases included only one-fourth of the people killed by police as reported in the local news media.

"Suicide by cop"--in which the victim of police intentionally provokes officers to kill him or her--is cited as the cause of many of these police murders. This may occasionally happen, but the "suicide by cop" label is a very effective way of blaming the victim, rather than laying blame where it belongs: with those who are heavily armed and trained to kill, and hopefully not mentally ill.

WE LIVE in a society in which increasing numbers of people, mentally ill or not, are driven to desperation and despair, a system which treats people as if their lives have no value. This is the underlying cause of what the police cavalierly and self-justifyingly call "suicide by cop."

Suggesting that non-mentally ill people killed by the cops deserve what they get, while the mentally ill are more innocent, the Wall Street Journal article quotes police officer Christopher Burley, who in 2010 murdered a young man who turned out to have a mood disorder. It is easier to think that bad things only happen to bad people, Burley said.

The WSJ piece does raise the important issues of the need for more crisis intervention training for police and the impact of cuts to mental health services. But it goes to great lengths to paint a sympathetic portrait of the police not as perpetrators, but as victims of increasing attacks by the mentally ill--and emphasize how emotionally damaging it is for the police.

Not mentioned in this article are the dozens of cases--Mohamed Bah and Walwyn Jackson, to name a few--in which a family member calls 911 asking for an ambulance to bring their psychiatrically unstable, often suicidal, loved one to the hospital.

Instead, cops in riot gear arrive and further agitating the person. Over and over, family members stand helplessly by while their loved one (armed with a knife, or not armed at all) is murdered.

Not mentioned is the fact that people with mental illness are up to 11 times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, and four times more likely than the non-mentally ill to be attacked by the police. Or that their uncontrolled psychiatric symptoms increasingly result in imprisonment rather than treatment.

The Wall Street Journal doesn't mention that U.S. prisons now function as warehouses for the mentally ill, where they receive scant and questionable treatment. Or that once incarcerated, the mentally ill are likely to break the "rules" and to be consigned to prolonged solitary confinement, face brutality at the hands of correction officers, and attempt suicide.

Rarely do police receive more than a slap on the wrist, even after murdering multiple times. The Bronx cop who almost two years ago murdered the unarmed Ramarley Graham in the bathroom of his home, while his 6-year-old brother and grandmother were nearby, still sits on "desk duty," blocks from the murder scene.

More crisis intervention training for police and police using Tasers instead of guns would certainly be helpful and result in fewer murders, but there's a bigger question: Why should the police, whose primary purpose is to "serve and protect" the wealthy, be the only resource in these situations?

Anyone living in a poor community--especially a Black or Brown poor community--knows the police are the last people you'd want to call for help. Meanwhile, state governments have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending between 2009 and 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

The police deal with mental health crises on the streets. More mentally ill people are in prison than receiving treatment in the community. It's sickening to live in a country that hands the "care" of the most vulnerable over to institutions least equipped to help them--and most likely to harm them.

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