Editor’s Note: This op-ed on mental illness and police confrontations has been repurposed from June 2017 in the wake of the recent shooting death of unarmed Crown Heights, Brooklyn man Saheed Vassell
The recent shooting of Seattle mother of four, Charleena Lyles, has reignited the national conversation around mental illness and de-escalation training for police officers. This discourse, which has been at play for decades, has barely moved the needle towards progress, leaving families racked with tragedy in the gap between outrage and policy enforcement.
The shooting involving Lyles is an eerie echo of events that transpired almost 33 years prior in Bronx, NY. Like Lyles, Eleanor Bumpers had a history of mental illness when police entered her apartment to evict her in 1984. According to court testimony, Bumpers was holding a knife, and Officer Sullivan, who was on the scene, fired two shots into the 66-year-old woman—one in her hand, and the fatal shot hitting her in the chest.
The incident sparked discussions on how police de-escalate situations involving Emotionally Disturbed People (EDPs). The police commissioner during this time, Benjamin Ward, revised police policy requiring street-level officers to wait until supervisors arrived before confronting EDPs. Ward also ordered officers to set up ‘safety zone’ barriers to protect the suspect as well as themselves.
Community outcry called for police officers to be held accountable. Officer Sullivan was charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
And yet, the pattern of injustice played out its ugly refrain more than 30 years ago just as it does today: Outrage. Protest. Police officers acquitted. Silence.
History repeats itself to get our attention. Cycles exist to expose the roots of social ills so they can be plucked out and healed. But American policing policy remains frighteningly stubborn when it comes to developing strategies to preserve the lives of our mentally ill and impoverished Black communities.
The death of Mike Brown in 2014 not only sparked the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, but also served as a key instrument in moving the conversation back to the obvious gaps in police training in tense scenarios.
In the wake of Brown’s death, President Obama‘s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its final report in 2015, holding de-escalation techniques essential to police training. Despite this definitive White House stance towards a solution, there is still no statewide mandate requiring police officers to be trained to de-escalate situations, that decision is left to the jurisdiction of local chiefs and sheriffs–and therein lies the problem. Police fraternities opposed to the training view de-escalation politics as a “criticism” of policing.
“I think it’s based on a false premise,” said Mike Sherlock, a former police lieutenant and sheriff’s deputy, who is executive director of Nevada’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, “And the false premise is that officers are prone to excessive force,” according to APM reports.
To date, most states do not require de-escalation training. In Seattle, where Lyles was killed, training policy is in place, but only a minuscule two hours per calendar year are required.
And as 34 states remain sluggish to onboard key life-saving training techniques, the mental health crisis in America grows. According to the Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration, 16 percent of the Black population reports having mental issues—that’s 6.8 million people in America. And mental health issues are directly linked to socio-economic status. Adult African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty (US HHS Office of Minority Health).
And here is where the toxic cocktail of police brutality, mental health and poverty brews. No required de-escalation techniques for police officers, coupled with the rising mental health crisis among Black people in this country creates a perfect recipe for tragic encounters between the mentally ill and authorities.
This unresolved reality is made even more bleak with the Trump Administration’s renewed “Blue Lives Matter” approach as an affront to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And in this conflict, the chasm between outrage and progress remains wide and unconquerable with families torn apart in the crossfire.
But, until the divide between health and tactical solutions are bridged, to be Black, poor and mentally ill will remain a frightfully dangerous condition in any scenario in America, but especially in confrontations with police.