As long as police emphasize “force and complete submission over safety,” they will continue to kill people with mental illness
It’s a common refrain that prisons have become de facto mental institutions, and people who desperately need care––both medical and emotional––are being thrown into cold correctional institutions where they get neither. Less understood is the fact that people with serious mental illness are more likely to be victimized than commit violence. But fear of violence, combined with apparent obstinance, make people with serious mental illness particularly vulnerable to state violence, especially in a culture where disobeying an officer’s command can be enough to get a person killed.
Rachel Aviv examined this phenomenon for The New Yorker in 2015, focusing on the death of Christopher Torres, a 27-year-old man with schizophrenia, who was killed in his home by Albuquerque police. His mother, remembered hearing about police shootings on the local news. “Nearly every time, the police announced that the person who had been shot was violent, a career criminal, or mentally ill. ‘I just assumed that these men must have done something to merit being killed,’ she said. ‘They looked frightening.” But then it happened to her son. “The local television stations ran an unflattering picture of Christopher with his eyes bugged out,” writes Aviv. “The police department said publicly that Christopher had a lengthy criminal history, which was untrue. He’d never been convicted of a crime.” [Rachel Aviv / The New Yorker]
“In the five years before Christopher’s death, the Albuquerque Police Department shot 38 people, killing 19 of them,” Aviv writes. “More than half were mentally ill.” She details the repeated failures of the police department to address the problem, despite a Justice Department report that detailed how the police fostered a “culture that emphasizes force and complete submission over safety.” One sergeant said that early in her career, she would get injured trying to arrest people. “Then she took a forty-hour course offered by the department in crisis-intervention training, a model used by many police departments to help officers communicate with suspects, particularly those who are mentally ill. She never got injured on duty again.” She began teaching the class, but her colleagues did not show interest. [Rachel Aviv / The New Yorker]
Tom Robbins, writing for the Marshall Project last week, took a close look at how these dynamics played out in one case: Karl Taylor, a man incarcerated in New York who was diagnosed with delusional disorder and paranoid personality disorder. One morning in 2015, a guard ordered him to clean his cell, which had been trashed by corrections officers. Taylor insisted that he should not be the one to clean it. Things escalated quickly. Prisoners who witnessed the event say that the guard cracked Taylor over the head twice with his baton, and guards say Taylor struck the guard first. Taylor was then “subdued” by a “throng of officers” and everyone heard him “rasp that he couldn’t breathe.” He was soon declared dead. [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project]
State investigations found that Taylor’s death was primarily caused by his own poor health. But an independent autopsy, and scrutiny of the state’s conclusions, show that he was more likely beaten to death by the guards, who were giving him what they call a “tuneup.” Robbins adds, “absent the presence of a deadly weapon—in this case, a long wooden stick—and but for a guard’s stubborn insistence that even a mentally ill inmate must clean his cell, this was an avoidable tragedy.” [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project]
“We’re not designed for … treatment,” said Brian Fischer, New York’s former correctional commissioner. “A guy who acts out, do we know what to do?” Fischer asked. “If he is hearing voices and along comes a guard and gives him an order, which voice does he listen to first? The one in his head, or the one on the other side of the bars? [Tom Robbins / Marshall Project]
One study examined the almost 2,000 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016. “Because individuals with mental illness were less likely to have a projectile weapon and were less likely to have attacked police, other factors must have figured into the use of deadly force, such as noncompliance,” the author writes. “Fears about what happens when individuals with mental illness are not compliant with police orders are widespread among advocates for people with mental illness.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness has written, “When officers believe an individual is deliberately disobeying their instructions, they are trained to increase their compliance tactics. In situations involving someone whose mental illness is preventing him from following officers’ instructions, the stage may be set for a confrontation.” [Emma Frankham / Contexts]
Apparent insubordination can endanger others, too. Last year, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killed Magdiel Sanchez, a deaf man who was holding a pipe, because he ignored their commands. Neighbors were shouting, “He can’t hear you,” but they fired anyway. He is one of several deaf people killed by police for not obeying commands. [BBC News] This trope has become almost a parody of itself: Earlier this year, Amber Guyger, the off-duty Dallas police officer charged with murder for shooting a man in his own apartment, “claimed she shot and killed 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean after he ignored her ‘verbal commands.’” [Doha Madani / HuffPost]
These stories are familiar: officers are called to a scene without knowledge of a suspect’s history. The suspect might not know they are law enforcement. The officer shouts a command, the person does not obey, the officer pulls the trigger. But this is not the whole story. It was not the case for Karl Taylor. The guard knew Taylor. He instigated the conflict. It was not a split second decision driven by fear. Instead, it seems indicative of a larger pattern: officers responding to any sign of insubordination with brutal force. Until we let go of the idea that an officer’s job it is to control at all costs, they will continue to kill people with mental illness.