Criminalizing people who need help

May 24, 2017

Sarah Mamo asks why it is that police, rather than mental-health professionals, are the first responders in situations where people are in distress.

WHEN THE Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality emerged in 2014, one of its major achievements was its ability to expose police lies by advancing the narratives of the brutalized.

This fight must continue.

In Columbus, Ohio, activists have repeatedly exposed the police for what they are in order to build a movement that throws their stories out the window--and writes our own in truth. In fact, the last few upsurges of activity surrounding police brutality in Columbus have highlighted something that the police conveniently disregard: mental health.

Police narratives take a particularly vicious turn when mental health is thrown into the equation. As first responders, police have special access to the victim, putting them in a position to manipulate "patient confidentiality" in order to shape their narrative.

Two recent instances in Columbus--the detaining of an unnamed Ohio State University (OSU) student and the death of Jaron Thomas--show the suffering of victims at the hands of police, and how police brutality, race and mental illness converge.

Students at Ohio State University march against racism following Trump's election
Students at Ohio State University march against racism

ON APRIL 24, 2017, a call came into the OSU Police Department (OSUPD) reporting that there was a student on campus prepared to harm himself with a weapon. When OSUPD encountered the student, only a few moments passed before the young man suddenly found himself tackled to the ground. In a video recorded by a passerby, onlookers can be heard telling the officers to answer the student's query about why he was being arrested.

In a blow-by-blow account later published on 10TV, the Ohio State Director of Public Safety stated that "typically, [the police are] probably not going to explain to a crowd of people around what's going, but they'll make sure the person they're dealing with knows what's going on." But the student himself clearly never received an answer to the question of why he was being arrested.

Onlookers decrying the officers' refusal to disclose the reasons for the students' detainment were told to call the OSUPD office. But when they did, no one answered the phone. Later that day, OSU Chief of Police Craig Stone released the following statement:

Earlier today, The Ohio State University Police Division responded to an urgent report that a person may intend to harm himself and may have a weapon. Officers quickly located the individual. Based on their observations at the scene, they took action deemed necessary to protect the safety of all. The individual was not arrested and no injuries have been reported. He was transported to the hospital for a well-being check, which is standard protocol when police believe an individual may harm themselves. Ohio State Police will thoroughly review this incident, as we do all such cases. The safety and security of the campus community is our number one priority.

At a rally the day after the incident organized by the Columbus chapter of the International Socialist Organization and co-sponsored by Socialist Students and Students Together Against Trump, attendees expressed outrage and confusion. Important questions were asked that challenged OSUPD's narrative of events, in particular: Why does the university respond to mental health crises with police intervention?

No public statement was issued by OSUPD on whether they had discovered a weapon. From our experience organizing around the murder of Tyre King, we know that the police will attempt to justify their actions by publicly displaying whatever weapon was found on the victim's person, even if not functional or, in Tyre's case, a BB gun.

But so far, there has been no such press conference by police at OSU. If a weapon was located, why not publicly state so and assuage the worries of countless faculty, staff, and students who might immediately jump to support OSUPD's actions if a weapon were found?

Some are speculating that no weapon was found because OSUPD apprehended the wrong Black man. This is a claim supported by the fact that the unnamed student was released prior to the end of his three-day mandatory stay--all those admitted to a psychiatric hospital may be required, by law, to remain in hospital care for up to three days. On a campus where Black people comprise less than 6 percent of the total student population, it is shocking that OSUPD detained the wrong Black man.

This upsetting event is by no means isolated. If issues of mental health are reported to Resident Advisors, Hall Directors, directly to OSUPD or to other relevant campus figures, and OSUPD determines the individual may harm themselves, it is "standard protocol" for OSUPD to take said person to a hospital.

In a recording of a conversation with an OSUPD officer that I obtained, the officer asserts that cases of self-harm or suicide are the number one reason for OSUPD to be dispatched on campus--which, if true, is certainly not widely known.

But why on earth are police responding to these calls instead of trained mental-health professionals? Why not allocate a portion of the salaries of the 13 OSU administrators who made more than $1 million last year or the 121 who made more than $500,000 to creating a special mental-health response unit? If not an administrator's salary, perhaps the funding allocated to militarizing our police force. Or the funding allocated to building seemingly endless residence halls, floors of which are built in under a year.

A 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center reported that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians. In a 2016 study by David Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long, it was found that "disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers."

In both the cases of the unnamed OSU student and 36-year-old Black man Jaron Thomas, OSUPD and CPD, respectively, claim to have intervened on behalf of the victim's safety.

Thomas was a devoted father and uncle. He also had schizophrenia. According to a website run by Thomas's loved ones, mental-health professionals had told him to call 911 whenever he needed help. When he called for help on January 14, 2017, as instructed, things turned out differently than they had in the past.

The CPD concurs with the coroner's report that revealed Thomas' cocaine consumption put him in a state of excited delirium, "a medical condition in which a person becomes uncontrollable." Surely this was mentioned to give the CPD grounds to justify its officers' actions.

What this story does not tell us is that Thomas explicitly stated that he was unarmed and seeking a medic during his 911 call. We can only wonder if he was explicit about being unarmed to avert the police narrative that frames Black men as "violent criminals?"

When officers arrived at his doorstep, Thomas was ordered to put his hands behind his back, as if he was a criminal, and when he resisted, the officers struck him twice on the right side of his face and kneed him in his right side.

Thomas was hospitalized with severe brain damage, head contusions, a blood clot near his sternum, and at least one broken rib, among other injuries, which led to his death. As organizers report, his family received no response from the CPD until the autopsy report was released on May 10.

CPD spokesperson Sgt. Rich Weiner said the reason for their delayed investigation was because they were waiting for the autopsy and toxicology results. When released, the coroner's report "showed that [Thomas'] right eye was bruised, as was his torso. Four of his ribs also were fractured." The CPD's narrative conveniently left out that the brutality meted out to Thomas by the officers lined up with the findings of the coroner's report.

A Black man needing mental health assistance called 911, as advised by mental health professionals, and clarified that he was unarmed and seeking a medic to make clear the sort of assistance he needed. By asking him to put his arms behind his back, the police officers effectively criminalized Thomas instead of providing him assistance.

As in the OSU case, the police will blame the victim and say they were following procedure. But is this the way to treat someone if you believe they are a risk to themselves?

OSU STUDENTS, faculty, and staff--a total of 60,000 people--only have 43 trained counselors and 20 trainees on staff, according to the website of the OSU Counseling and Consultation Service. People spend months on waitlists to get an appointment, meanwhile a mental-health crisis exists on our campus.

Even though Jaron Thomas had called for help in the past and successfully received it, the system failed him severely this time. Whatever the reason, the CPD treated Thomas like a criminal, not a person in need of help.

How are people safe if police departments are the first responders? How are they safe when access to mental health care is nearly inaccessible? Is a Black, working-class or poor person safe when in need of assistance?

These are questions we must constantly raise. The police clearly did not know how to handle these two cases. In one instance a student was tackled and institutionalized; in another, a man was killed after his encounter with police. In both instances, they were treated as criminals and then blamed for their own situation.

In our movements, we must tell these stories in order to sketch out a vision of a better society. What if police were not assigned to be first responders in mental-health cases? What if we could abolish the police, and not have to deal with armed officers whose daily work leads to criminalizing those in need of assistance?

Pranav Jani contributed to this article.

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