Mentally ill and murdered by police

December 11, 2012

Hannah Wolfe documents a little-noticed epidemic of police killing the mentally ill.

A SURGE in activism against racist violence, starting with the protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, has cast a spotlight in different cities on the main organized purveyor of such violence: the police.

This greater attention has revealed the scandalous facts about police killings. Some were already well known--for example, that people of color are far more likely to be the victims of police.

But others aren't so well known. Like this one: around one in every eight victims of police murder from the start of 2012 was mentally ill or in severe mental distress, according to an examination of information compiled at the Wikipedia website.

Data on killings by law enforcement officers are notorious for gross underreporting. The Orlando Sentinel reported on a study of killings by police from 1999 to 2002 in Central Florida, which found that national databases included only one-fourth of the deaths reported in the local news media.

But examining only the reports available, a total of 428 people had been killed by police as of the end of September. Of those, 30 cases followed 911 calls by family members of someone who was suicidal. In an additional 12 cases, the victim was known to be mentally ill, usually schizophrenic--these include a 15-year-old autistic boy. And a closer reading of the details of each death suggests that an additional 12 victims were severely mentally unstable--for example, one was a naked man banging on the window of the police station.

Family, friends and supporters march for justice for Mohamed Bah
Family, friends and supporters march for justice for Mohamed Bah

In other words, among the first 428 cases of police killings this year--the current total on the Wikipedia list as this article was being prepared for publication was 520--13 percent were mentally ill or in mental distress.

This statistic fits with the conclusions of the Treatment Advocacy Center that there has been an increase over the past five years in the number of mentally ill people attacked or injured by police.

TWO RECENT cases in New York City expose the nightmarish details of killings that should never have happened.

On September 25, 28-year-old Mohamed Bah, originally from Guinea, was killed by the New York Police Department. The New York Daily News report on the death was headlined: "NYPD Officers Kill Knife-wielding Madman in Harlem." With just the headline, the official version of the story is told or implied. "officers" were forced to kill a monstrous "madman" who was clearly threatening someone's life. And the headline tells us this happened in Harlem, letting us know that the "madman" was probably black.

For those more suspicious of the police, the Village Voice website cautioned: "Before we go sounding the excessive-force alarms, it should be noted that the deceased perp slashed at least two of the officers with a 12-inch kitchen knife--it wasn't until he tried a third time that police shot him with real bullets." So the police must have exercised amazing restraint, shooting the "perp" only as a last resort.

But a very different story of Mohamed Bah has emerged since, between the lines of the official story and in the words of family members when they were finally interviewed by the press.

Bah, a taxi driver and part-time college student, was, according to his family, "not himself" for several months, missing work and school, and saying strange things when they called him. His mother became so concerned that she flew from Guinea to visit. When she arrived, he would not let her in the apartment. Afraid he was going to kill himself, she called her other son in France, who advised her to call an ambulance, which she did.

Her plan, she said, was to have the ambulance waiting outside while she went up to the apartment and persuaded him that he needed treatment. Rather than the hoped-for ambulance, it was police who arrived, armed to the hilt and equipped with bulletproof vests and surveillance cameras. They evacuated the building and prevented Bah's mother and friends, who hoped to calm him down, from approaching the apartment door.

The descriptions of family members and other witnesses are a stark contrast to the police version that officers were acting in self-defense and "had to" kill a murderous "madman" as a last resort.

Instead, say those who knew the victim, Mohamed was alone in his apartment--that is, not menacing anyone with a knife. When police attempted to enter, they saw him holding a knife--one can imagine his terror as the NYPD attempted to push its way in--and shut the door. The cops then inserted a surveillance camera under the door. Now terrified by an electronic device sliding under his door, Bah opened it, wielding the knife. Three officers Tasered him and shot him with rubber bullets. In response, he lashed out at them with the knife--and all three opened fire.

Mohamed suffered 10 shots to the head, abdomen and limbs. He was pronounced dead a short while later at St. Luke's Hospital.

As he was murdered, his mother and friends, listening below in the stairwell of the building, were pleading to be allowed to talk to Mohamed. His mother, Hawa Bah, later said: "Ask those people why they killed my son. I called them for help. They killed an innocent person for nothing."

Less than three weeks before, in Queens, 26-year-old Walwyn Jackson, unemployed and unable to provide for his newborn son, held a knife to his own throat in his family's apartment, prompting his mother to call 911. A sickeningly similar course of events then played out, ending in a distraught person, of no danger to anyone other than himself, gunned down in his own home by police.

In both cases, when the family called 911 for an ambulance to get psychiatric help, the police arrived, guns in hand, forcing family and friends away from the apartment. In both cases, relatives were prevented from approaching their loved one. Instead, they had to stand helplessly downstairs, pleading with police--before hearing the fatal shots. And in both cases, media reports stressed that a "deranged" black man was wielding a knife.

This epidemic of the mentally ill or troubled killed by police isn't confined to New York City. Also on the police hit list in 2012 is 40-year-old Brian Claunch of Houston, a schizophrenic double amputee in a wheelchair who was shot by police after he allegedly tried to stab an officer with a pen. One of the shooters, Matthew Jacob Marin, had gotten his department's Officer of the Year award in 2009--shortly after he killed another man "in the line of duty."

WHO COULD seriously describe these victims of police murders as "perps"?

Most people with serious mental illness aren't violent, and most violent acts aren't committed by people with mental illness. In fact, research proves the opposite--that people with serious mental illness are at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

One study conducted in 1984 found that people with serious mental illness are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. And people with psychiatric disorders are four times more likely to die in encounters with police as compared to members of the general population.

What factors lie behind these statistics, making the mentally ill more vulnerable to violence, particularly from police?

Before the 1970s, most mentally ill people in the U.S. were institutionalized. Then, in the guise of humanitarian reform, institutions were shut down en masse, with the promise of fabulous-sounding community mental health agencies. These, of course, never materialized.

Now, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, more mentally ill people are in jails and prisons than hospitals. At least 16 percent of inmates in prisons and jails have severe mental illness, according to the report. Of course, they receive little or no treatment while behind bars. Instead, the mentally ill are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement and more likely to be beaten by prison guards.

On the other hand, if you are a "good" mentally ill person, if you don't use "illegal" drugs and if you take your medications, you may be treated to life on the outside. For many, that means living on Supplemental Security Income, scraping by in a small room and eating bologna sandwiches.

But despite these conditions, the mentally ill are regularly blamed, especially by advocates for law-and-order policies, for "impulsive, risk-taking" behavior, in the words of the CrimeInAmerica.Net website--the result of "neglectful" parents who didn't access mental health services for their children.

The question to ask here is: What services? Most families with mentally ill members to care for have almost no resources, private or public, to draw on. Son in a crisis, they call 911, hoping for an ambulance--and all too often, the police arrive instead.

Police get a huge number of calls each day asking for help with "emotionally disturbed" individuals, but departments have little or no information about how to respond. In some cities, like San Francisco, there are special "psych" police units with some small amount of training in intervening without the use of excessive force--but that's definitely the exception.

But the bigger question is this: 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 who'd want to call for help.

Yet 911 is too often the only place families have to turn--in significant part because of the accelerating cutbacks in government programs to help the mentally ill. 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 (NASMHPD). This is the largest drop in funding since deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and '70s. This year alone, 31 states that have supplied statistics to HASMHPD reported cutting more than $840 million.

In some states, the cutbacks have been even more drastic. In 2012, California's mental health budget was around $2.8 billion, down more than $760 million from 2009 levels. From 2009 to 2012, South Carolina saw funding for mental health programs cut by 39 percent, Alabama had a 36 percent decrease, and funding in Alaska and Illinois dropped by more than 30 percent, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Some victims of police murder have longstanding histories of serious mental illness. Others have been pushed to the edge by poverty. And there are still others in communities targeted by police who develop symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can then create a vicious cycle of re-victimization and traumatization.

Living in communities targeted for police persecution has a cumulative effect on mental health. Witnessing friends, neighbors and family members being harassed and humiliated by police on a daily basis--not to mention experiencing this yourself--inevitably wear away at people's mental well-being.

Damion Ramirez's best friend, Mike Nida, was killed last year by police in Downey, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles, when officers mistook him for a suspect in an ATM robbery and he fled in fear rather than submit to a search by the cops. Ramirez explained why he thinks his friend became a target:

Mike's history with law enforcement in the past was of negative interactions, even when he was in the right. He had a prescription for marijuana and was still busted for possession all the time, just because of the way he looked. The routine degradation that he suffered due to constant police harassment was so offensive to him, it depressed the hell out of him. He did everything he could to avoid the police. He got so tired of trying to prove his legitimacy.

That night, he was going to celebrate his birthday with his wife; his reason for running was to get back to her, the one person in the world he felt could prove his innocence. For all he knew, he was going to get charged with armed robbery. He did not believe for one second that there would be any "justice" for a man in his position, alone against the police.

SO WHAT can be done about this epidemic of police violence against some of the most vulnerable people in society?

Many cities have grassroots organizations, often composed of the mentally ill and formerly incarcerated, fighting for the rights and lives of people with mental illness--for example, Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities.

In addition, organizations and networks have been formed across the country by families and their supporters to win justice for loved ones killed by police. Within cities and between them, some of these groups are uniting to fight around individual cases and for wider goals of changing the system. There is strength in numbers, especially in the face of what can be crippling grief, anger, hopelessness and fear.

Activists who challenge police brutality and violence need to recognize that the issue of mental illness is bound up with their struggle. The movement can make immediate demands for changes that would alleviate suffering right away: psychiatric crisis response teams composed of trained mental health professionals; access to mental health services for all through a single-payer health care system; better prison conditions; an end to solitary confinement and overcrowding; and money for mental health and drug treatment in prison.

Of course, none of these measures would address the root causes of police violence or the oppression that the mentally ill suffer. Why has there been a sevenfold increase in mental illness since the 17th century? Why a threefold increase in the past three decades? What is it about this system we live that grinds people down, isolates them, teaches them to blame themselves for their suffering and pushes them to the edge?

The answers to those questions go to the heart of the sickness of the capitalist system. We have a struggle ahead of us in the here and now to challenge police brutality and the wider injustices of the mass incarceration system. Those struggles will need to address questions of disinvestment of social programs and jobs--and beyond that, the roots of inequality in a capitalist society.

Only by taking up these wider questions will we be able to transform a society that relies on police racism and violence to sustain itself.

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