When Joe Prude called the police on his brother, he was asking for help: Daniel Prude, who suffered from mental health problems, had run almost naked out of his Rochester, New York, house into the snow. When officers arrived, new video footage shows, the March 23 encounter quickly turned violent, and Prude died from asphyxiation under a hood officers had put over his head.
Two years prior, in 2018, Shukri Ali Said of Georgia also wound up dead after leaving her house during a mental health crisis on April 23, 2018. Police, called in to help, found Said standing at an intersection holding a knife. Officers shot her five times in the neck and chest, killing her.
That same month, in New York, officers answered a 911 call about a black man waving something that looked like a gun. In fact, it was a pipe. But when Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father with mental illness who was well known in his Brooklyn community, pointed it at police, they shot him dead.
Prude, Vassell and Said are among the hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in the United States killed by police every year. According to The Washington Post, 197 of the 999 people shot by police last year had a mental illness.
Police are almost always the first responders in cases of mental health crises in the United States, as they are in criminal and medical emergencies.
From deinstitutionalization to disarray
As a disability and ethics scholar who focuses on criminal justice, I know this country has long failed to justly and humanely care for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.
For most of American history, people with mental health disabilities were locked away in hospital-like institutions, many of them state-run. Starting in the 1950s, the physical and sexual abuse common in these facilities, as well as other inhumane practices, spurred a decades-long effort to close them down and return residents to the community.
This process, called deinstitutionalization, was meant to replace institutions with local mental health centers that would provide community-based mental health treatment and assistance for those recently released from institutions.
However, in 1981 Ronald Reagan cut most funding for these centers. And since other existing community services – like schools, housing and health services – were not adapted to meet the needs of these new community members, many were left jobless, homeless and unable to get a good education.
Some people are fortunate enough to live with their families or in one of the United States’ roughly 500 private residential facilities – places that can cost up to US$60,000 a year. Others end up homeless, in poorly run facilities or even in jails.
But everyone with these disabilities is at high risk of interacting with police. Too often, these interactions go poorly.
‘Nothing about us without us’
In hopes of identifying practices that prevent avoidable deaths, I’ve been interviewing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Under the terms of the academic ethics boards overseeing my research, the names of all my interview subjects are protected.
One reason police encounters can go wrong, I’ve learned, is that people with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions – particularly in a high-stress situation.
“People who don’t have [an intellectual disability] don’t have a hard time understanding what the police are asking them to do,” one man told me. “It’s different for me.”
People with these disabilities are also often disbelieved by the police. A woman I interviewed – who communicated slowly due to her disabilities – said she called 911 on her boyfriend for hitting her. But the police believed the boyfriend’s story that she was the violent one and arrested her instead.
“When they find out that you’re not capable of understanding what’s going on, it’s a free-for-all,” another interview subject told me.
People with intellectual disabilities may struggle in court, too. When one interviewee didn’t understand a judge’s question, he told me, he was sentenced to three months in county jail for disorderly conduct.
Judges and lawyers “need to listen to people that’s on disability,” said the woman arrested after calling 911 on her abusive partner, urging patience.
Strategies for change
Recognizing that they struggle to handle people in mental crisis, many U.S. cities are making efforts to improve outcomes.
New York City trains some officers in crisis intervention and recently mandated that a social worker must accompany officers to such cases. Denver is looking to adopt a mobile crisis intervention program started in Oregon that ensures medics and crisis workers, not police, respond to mental health calls.
These and similar efforts nationwide are a step in the right direction. But my research indicates they may not go far enough.
Police frequently encounter people with psychiatric disabilities when someone calls 911 about a person acting unusually in public. If police perceive that person as potentially violent, the situation can quickly escalate.
That’s how Anthony Hill, a black veteran found wandering around his Atlanta apartment complex naked, died in 2015. Hill, who had gone off his medication, ran toward Officer Robert Olsen, who shot him. Olsen was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Nov. 1, 2019, for aggravated assault and violating his oath of office.
Nor do laws targeting police violence address the factors that lead people with mental health disabilities to need emergency assistance in the first place.
Despite growing recognition of the stigma around mental illness, people with mental health disabilities are often still feared, pitied and associated with violence in TV and movies. This social stigma can lead to societal rejection and isolation. And the difficulties people with mental health challenges face finding adequate housing, health care and employment all increase their risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.
One lesson from the history of American mental health care is that reforming just one problematic aspect of the system doesn’t work. To serve this population’s needs, other institutions – from education to housing – must also be made more flexible, responsive and accessible.
Just as shuttering institutions 60 years ago solved little, simply targeting police responses won’t suffice now, either.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
88 Black Men And Boys Killed By Police
1. Deon Kay1 of 88
2. Daniel Prude2 of 88
3. Damian Daniels3 of 88
4. Dijon Kizzee4 of 88
5. Trayford PellerinSource:GoFundMe 5 of 88
6. David McAtee6 of 88
7. George Floyd7 of 88
8. Yassin Mohamed8 of 88
9. Finan H. Berhe9 of 88
10. Sean ReedSource:Twitter 10 of 88
11. Steven Demarco TaylorSource:S. Lee Merritt 11 of 88
12. Ariane McCreeSource:The Herald/YouTube 12 of 88
13. Terrance Franklin13 of 88
14. Miles HallSource:KRON4 14 of 88
15. Darius TarverSource:S. Lee Merritt 15 of 88
16. William Green16 of 88
17. Samuel David Mallard, 1917 of 88
18. Kwame "KK" Jones, 17Source:facebook 18 of 88
19. De’von Bailey, 1919 of 88
20. Christopher Whitfield, 3120 of 88
21. Anthony Hill, 2621 of 88
22. De'Von Bailey, 1922 of 88
23. Eric Logan, 5423 of 88
24. Jamarion Robinson, 2624 of 88
25. Gregory Hill Jr., 3025 of 88
26. JaQuavion Slaton, 2026 of 88
27. Ryan Twyman, 2427 of 88
28. Brandon Webber, 2028 of 88
29. Jimmy Atchison, 2129 of 88
30. Willie McCoy, 2030 of 88
31. D’ettrick Griffin, 1831 of 88
32. Jemel Roberson, 26Source:false 32 of 88
33. DeAndre Ballard, 23Source:false 33 of 88
34. Botham Shem Jean, 26Source:false 34 of 88
35. Robert Lawrence White, 41Source:false 35 of 88
36. Anthony Lamar Smith, 24Source:Getty 36 of 88
37. Ramarley Graham, 18Source:Getty 37 of 88
38. Manuel Loggins Jr., 31Source:Getty 38 of 88
39. Trayvon Martin, 17Source:Getty 39 of 88
40. Wendell Allen, 20Source:Getty 40 of 88
41. Kendrec McDade, 19Source:Getty 41 of 88
42. Larry Jackson Jr., 32Source:Getty 42 of 88
43. Jonathan Ferrell, 24Source:Getty 43 of 88
44. Jordan Baker, 26Source:Getty 44 of 88
45. Victor White lll, 22Source:Getty 45 of 88
46. Dontre Hamilton, 31Source:Getty 46 of 88
47. Eric Garner, 43Source:Getty 47 of 88
48. John Crawford lll, 22Source:Getty 48 of 88
49. Michael Brown, 18Source:Getty 49 of 88
50. Ezell Ford, 25Source:Getty 50 of 88
51. Dante Parker, 36Source:Getty 51 of 88
52. Kajieme Powell, 25Source:Getty 52 of 88
53. Laquan McDonald, 17Source:Getty 53 of 88
54. Akai Gurley, 28Source:Getty 54 of 88
55. Tamir Rice, 12Source:Getty 55 of 88
56. Rumain Brisbon, 34Source:Getty 56 of 88
57. Jerame Reid, 36Source:Getty 57 of 88
58. Charly Keunang, 43Source:Getty 58 of 88
59. Tony Robinson, 19Source:Getty 59 of 88
60. Walter Scott, 50Source:Getty 60 of 88
61. Freddie Gray, 25Source:Getty 61 of 88
62. Brendon Glenn, 29Source:Getty 62 of 88
63. Samuel DuBose, 43Source:Getty 63 of 88
64. Christian Taylor, 19Source:Getty 64 of 88
65. Jamar Clark, 24Source:Getty 65 of 88
66. Mario Woods, 26Source:Getty 66 of 88
67. Quintonio LeGrier, 19Source:Getty 67 of 88
68. Gregory Gunn, 58Source:Getty 68 of 88
69. Akiel Denkins, 24Source:Getty 69 of 88
70. Alton Sterling, 37Source:Getty 70 of 88
71. Philando Castile, 32Source:Getty 71 of 88
72. Terrence Sterling, 31Source:Getty 72 of 88
73. Terence Crutcher, 40Source:Getty 73 of 88
74. Keith Lamont Scott, 43Source:Getty 74 of 88
75. Alfred Olango, 38Source:Getty 75 of 88
76. Jordan Edwards, 15Source:Getty 76 of 88
77. Stephon Clark, 22Source:false 77 of 88
78. Danny Ray Thomas, 34Source:false 78 of 88
79. DeJuan Guillory, 27Source:false 79 of 88
80. Patrick Harmon, 5080 of 88
81. Jonathan Hart, 2181 of 88
82. Maurice Granton, 2482 of 88
83. Julius Johnson, 2383 of 88
84. Jamee Johnson, 22Source:S. Lee Merritt 84 of 88
85. Michael Dean, 28Source:S. Lee Merritt 85 of 88
How To Stop Cops From Killing People Suffering From Mental Illness was originally published on newsone.com