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The Police War on the Mentally Ill

Posted on May 26, 2015 in Accountability Authoritarianism Stigma Violence

square883I believe that the mentally ill — like all other Americans — have certain basic civil rights, among these being the right of security from harm by those charged with enforcing the laws. I am against forced treatment except when there is a clear danger to self or others as proved in a court of law. Time and again, I have read about times when cops have been called out to handle a suicide and ended the incident by killing a mentally ill man. That some people who claim to be advocates for the mentally ill explain away these shootings as justified and declare that the police are our friends should disturb us all.

It is not surprising that prominent forced medication and mental hospital advocates are jumping to the defense of the police: they must make mental illness the villain at all costs. They don’t care about who dies as a martyr to their cause, just so they gain the upper hand. Control is their aim.

Who can look at the videos of cops shooting down (mostly black) men with mental illness and want anything other than change unless they are vested in the status quo? A friend of mine talks about white supremacy as endemic to all white people in America today. We are far too comfortable with our station. There’s a continuum of white supremacy in this country which, on both ends, has people who are quite willing to admit to their white supremacist inclinations. On the far right, you have the classic white supremacists — the KKK, the White Citizen’s Councils, and the Nazis to name a few — who are very willing to admit that they are racist because, in their eyes, that is God’s truth. On the other end, you have people like myself who recognize that we gain a great deal by being white, but are trying to annihilate the seeds of racism and privilege in ourselves. Between these is a great middle which lives in denial of its racism and its privilege.

These are the ones who can’t figure out what all the excitement over the shootings of mentally ill black men is about. They will swear up and down that they don’t hate black people, but they vote for and support the police officials that tolerate the violence.

I propose that there is a similar continuum of stigma towards the mentally ill in this country, with some shrill adherents on the right shamelessly calling for more control — civil rights be damned! — and others realizing how they have benefited from keeping the mentally ill “in their place”. The middle, as in racism, is occupied by people who don’t realize the falseness of their beliefs about mental illness and who don’t know how broken the system is.

In the times of segregation (which overlapped nicely with the time of forced hospitalization for many who were mentally ill), the elite used to tell poor whites that they could be glad that at least they weren’t black. What do the forced treatment advocates and helicopter parents intend to tell those who live with depression, now, that at least they don’t have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?

Speaking for myself, I don’t want anyone else turning me into a victim if it means that I lose civil rights or access to the medications that help me to function. I want to feel that when I deal with authorities, that they won’t panic and shoot me down. I know that because I am white and living in an affluent county this is less likely to happen, but it does happen to white people, too. Witness the incident that occurred within two miles of my home where a man was shot in front of his house after police responded to a call that he was cutting himself. Was this avoidable? I don’t doubt that a report will show that the officer was justified, but that will be a report drafted by other police officers more concerned about watching their backs than about finding the truth.

African Americans and the mentally ill both deserve better policing. We deserve better than lame defenses of the police which are fronts for forced medication and mental hospitals. The mentally ill are the victims of police shootings, not their causes. The militarization of the police force in the years since Vietnam is the chief cause of the unchecked police brutality against the mentally ill in our day. If the police cannot control their trigger-fingers, it is their fault not the fault of the people who end up dead. They are helped by juries like the one that acquitted the three uniformed murderers who beat an unarmed, homeless schizophrenic to death in Fullerton a few years back. They are helped by self-proclaimed advocates for the mentally ill who want to win police support for their programs and don’t dare speak up against the mindset that murders the manic and the delusional.

I am not convinced that putting a camera on every police officer in the nation is going to solve the problem because even in cases that were video-taped and clearly showed that the police used unnecessary force (cigarettes anyone?), juries found the officers in question not guilty. What we need is to do is separate those who investigate and prosecute police violence from law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. D.A.s present weak prosecutions against police officers because they have to work with the police and depend on them to make other cases. Good cops don’t speak out against bad cops for similar reasons. Many victims only find justice in the hands of organizations like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Justice should be available to all and there should be no privilege based on one’s mental state or one’s wearing of the uniform. The best ways to ensure this are civilian oversight panels and independent prosecutors. The present system is broken and broken in a way that lives become cheap.

Yes, the police know that they are out of their depth when it comes to the mentally ill. They have certainly mouthed these words over and over again. But what have they done to assure us that they will act with our safety ahead of their own? They have been given training in how to deal with us, but do they use it? I doubt if my neighbor would have ended up dead if his mental health intervention training had been the first thing on the mind of the officer who killed him. We are ending up dead on the streets because police think through all their scenarios with guns and nightsticks. We are ending up dead on the street because the public thinks we are all killers. We are ending up dead on the street because some who claim to advocate for us blame our own failure or inability to get treatment for our murders.

This is the same reasoning that drives domestic abuse and the murder of black men. The victim is always to blame. Society is getting smarter about domestic violence, it may be coming around on murdering black men in places like Ferguson, but it has a long way to go before it will grant we who live with mental illness the same dignity.

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