The Police Need to Lay Off the Mentally Ill
A memorial for Donald, the mentally ill homeless man killed by cops in LA earlier this month. Photo by Paul T Bradley
On October 14, a 52-year-old mentally ill man named Bobby Gerald Bennett was shot at four times by police in Dallas, Texas. His mother, Joyce Jackson, who he sometimes lived with, had called them after the two had an argument; she says she was told the officers coming to the house were trained in dealing with people like her son, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But one of the officers, Cardan Spencer, shot Bennett in the stomach even though he wasn’t approaching the cops—a neighbor’s surveillance video shows that Bennett was holding a knife but standing 20 feet away from them. After that video came out, the charge against Bennett of assault with a deadly weapon on a public servant got dropped and now Spencer is suspended indefinitely and being investigated himself.
This kind of incident is depressingly common. On November 18, two former members of the Fullerton, California police department will go on trial for beating and killing Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, back in 2011. Manuel Anthony Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. (Another officer who was present at the beating will go on trial for involuntary manslaughter in January.) Thomas had a long rap sheet for “interactions” with police that went back 20 years, as you might expect in the case of a homeless man with a mental illness. By all accounts the cops, who were responding to reports of car break-ins in the area, were aware of Thomas’s problems. Yet they still beat him repeatedly as he begged for help and cried out for his father (a former sheriff’s deputy who sued the police department and brought a lot of media attention to the case). Thomas eventually choked on his own blood because his throat was crushed.
The number of police killings of the mentally ill is not tracked by any agency. A study by the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram from last December estimated that half the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by the police nationwide each year are mentally ill. Sometimes, these incidents might be excusable, like when the disturbed person has a gun and is threatening the lives of others. (In the arguably justifiable shooting of Miriam Carey by police in Washington, DC, after she led them on a car chase, she may have been killed after she left her vehicle, which would be unacceptable.) But some law-enforcement responses to people who are behaving erratically are just baffling. Last month, the NYPD reacted to reports of a man walking through traffic in Times Square by opening fire on him and injuring two bystanders. This incident lead to a citywide push for a “Crisis Intervention Team” to deal with the reported 100,000 yearly phone calls New York cops receive about people in emotional distress who might be mentally ill—as it stands, having uniformed men with guns show up might make these situations worse.
Some police officers respond appropriately, even heroically, in these spots. The Bridgewater, Massachusetts, police department—assisted by a SWAT team—successfully brought in two different suicidal men this spring. Both were armed; one was threatening suicide by cop.
Other times, as in the case of Kelly Thomas, officers who might not have sufficient training for these situations treat the chronically mentally ill like criminals who need to be detained by any means necessary. Thomas at least had a father who was able to speak up for him after his death and his cause was taken up by the community and the press. Similar incidents haven’t attracted as much attention. In June, a grand jury declined to press charges against a Houston cop who fatally shot a schizophrenic, wheelchair-bound double amputee who was holding a pen and had backed his partner into a corner. Last month a homeless man named Donald was shot and killed by deputies from the LA County Sheriff’s Department for apparently brandishing a stick. VICE’s Paul T. Bradley spoke to other homeless men and women who knew Donald, and one said, “He never hurt anybody. He was really sweet. He just sat by that bus stop over there all day and slept under that bridge.” Maybe Donald was lifting a mighty tree branch and was inches from breaking open a deputy’s skull—though the folks Bradley spoke to denied there as a stick in Donald’s hands at all—but if that’s not true, will there be anything to refute that story beyond the words of other homeless people? And if that’s the case, will there be any consequences for the officers responsible?
It can be difficult to determine whether a disturbed person is a danger to others, especially if they have something in their hands that might be a weapon. But cops must be willing to take a risk and err on the side of not using lethal force in these situations. If the officers involved had taken a step back, Thomas would still be alive, and likely so would Donald. Anyone with a gun can use it. The police are supposed to protect the public. That includes the mentally ill.
On to the rest of this week’s bad cops:
- On October 16, 63 members of the Cleveland Police Department were suspended over their role in a November car chase that culminated in the shooting deaths of an unarmed couple. The temporary suspensions—which won’t last longer than ten days—are for engaging in a chase without permission and for falsifying police reports afterward. The cops had mistakenly thought the couple had fired shots at them and pursued them until they trapped them in a middle school parking lot, at which point 13 officers then unloaded more than 130 rounds at their car. Only afterward did the officers realize they had been shooting at other officers. It’s not clear whether the cops who actually fired shots will be disciplined, though an administrator was fired over the incident back in June.
- Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf highlights some disturbing passages from a Boston Globe interview with the owners of the infamous boat in which alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found and eventually captured. Friedersdorf notes that it might be forgivable that police fired at Tsarnaev (who turned out to be unarmed), because they were searching for a terrorist who had killed people, but wonders why they had to spray the neighborhood with automatic weapons fire when their target was curled up in a boat. It’s rather amazing no bystanders were injured, as they were by the LAPD during their manhunt for cop-killer Christopher Dorner.
- On October 7 in Richland County, South Carolina, off-duty Sheriff's Deputy Allen Derrick tried to arrest Brittany Ball in a Buffalo Wild Wings because Ball, a 23-year-old soldier was supposedly drunk and emotional. (If a 23-year-old soldier can’t be drunk and emotional, who can?) One of Ball’s companions filmed the interaction, during which Derrick cuffed the 23-year-old and yelled at her and the staff and patrons. At one point, Derrick can be clearly seen twisting the cuffs around Ball as she cries in pain.
- ... But that story has a happy ending: after the police showed up on the scene, they freed Ball and arrested Derrick for assault. Though Sheriff Leon Lott initially defended his deputy, he changed his mind and on October 15 fired Derrick for violating policy. Derrick, who had been drinking, had left the restaurant to get his gun and handcuffs in order to detain Ball. Lott ended up apologizing for the whole thing and saying there was “no excuse for his behavior.” That quick disciplinary response to an ugly incident makes Lott our Good Cop of the Week.
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