Words fail. There is an epidemic of insanity in this country, and the mentally disturbed are its victims, but not those with the condition.
Every few days now I read another report of another mentally ill person killed, shot or abused by police officers.
The latest incident would be beyond the pale - if so many past incidents weren't already so. A young man, one-armed and one-legged in a wheelchair killed because he had a pen? Or Kelly Thomas, homeless, beaten while lying on the ground and calling out to his father, killed by police on the streets of Fullerton, CA?
This video shows a mentally ill man, Gerald Bennett, gunned down in cold blood just days ago by a Dallas police officer, Cardan Spencer.
A Dallas police office is under criminal investigation after a surveillance video surfaced that indicated he may have lied on a police report about shooting a mentally ill man who he claimed had a knife.Bennett is standing meekly, a threat to nothing and no one. Watch.
Fortunately Bennett survived (the officer was apparently such a bad shot that he only hit his stationary target once with four shots), and is in stable condition in a local hospital.
The disease this officer suffers from is pervasive. It is nationwide. In Seattle and other locales, the police have been placed under court orders to alter their handling of the mentally ill. In my own home town of Berkeley, CA, a transgender woman with mental issues, Kayla Moore, died in police custody in February, 2013 as police tried to subdue her and likely smothered her.
We know the outward sign of this disease - men and women who need treatment, not forced restraint, dead at the hands of police, just as we know the outward sign of its close relative - an epidemic of young men of color dying in the streets by police violence.
But what are the causes?
"The People's Investigation: In-Custody Death of Kayla Moore."
From the introduction:
The City of Berkeley is currently operating without benefit of a clear and responsible approach to managing emergency mental health episodes. Dramatic cuts in mental health services and an expanding policing budget have created a context where it is primarily Berkeley Police who respond to mental health crises even though police training emphasizes priorities different from mental health concerns... the city continues to understaff emergency mental health services while supporting increased funding for the number of officers hired and... "less lethal" weaponry...:(It is safe to assume that by removing "Berkeley" from the above the statement is applicable to many, if not most, police departments around the country.)
Within they identify some of the specific actions and more general causes that led to Moore's death. Here are some of general police behaviors they identify as being problematic:
- Unnecessary escalation.
- Failure to disengage.
- Excessive use of force.
- No legal basis for police actions taken.
And in the "Analysis of Polices, Protocols and Training." section, Berkeley Copwatch analysts write:
The usual command and control approach does not work effectively with people in a mental health crisis... If the response is to reassure the individual... there may be a de-escalation. But, if the response is command and control, it may increase the level of fear are result in escalation... These dangers are significantly more likely to occur if the response to people with mental illness comes from officers trained to respond to criminals instead of people experiencing variances in mental health.These points are all true, but they are not sufficient. I don't believe they get to the heart of the matter; they don't clearly identify what I believe is the key component of the problem: the militarization of the police in both body and spirit.
Look at these pictures to see what I mean. The picture on the left was taken only days ago outside of Rexton, New Brunswick, Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police have set up a sniper position targeted on First Nations people, some women and children. The picture on the right is from Afghanistan.
it's not only the tactics; it's not only the equipment the police are accruing - body armor, armored personel carriers and huge weapons even Rambo would be jealous of - it's the psychology engendered by such weapons and training that is producing these outcomes.
Such psychology will be manifest in Oakland, CA soon. Beginning Friday, October 25th, at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland, police forces from all around the world will gather - in a grotesque abasement of the concept of a convention - to participate in URBAN SHIELD. From downtown Oakland teams will be fan out throughout Alameda County to take part in military-style exercises. Their supervisors will be enjoying the Marriott's liquor supply, no doubt paid for by
defense police contractors, while also being plied with the latest weapons and "technological innovations" for crowd control and dealing with "terrorist threats." These displays will begin two years to the day that Scott Olsen was shot in the head and almost killed by an Oakland Police team in full battle armor - one "trained" during that year's Urban Shield.
Consider the implications of this picture, being used to promote the event:
Here we have a man calmly sitting on a BART train while officers in combat gear and gask masks aim lethal weapons at who-knows-whom, all with an iconic BART logo off to the side. Draw your own conclusions about the glorification of the militarization of police.
When an army is deployed, it is (almost always) deployed against an enemy, apparent or assumed. The men and women so deployed act as such, for better or for worse.
Policing should be (and has to some extent in the past been) seen as an entirely different matter. But police are quickly becoming an army in all but name, deployed in combat readiness on the streets of our cities. Despite crime rates at lows not seen for decades, the police - and the public they so readily convince - are determined to see law enforcement as engaged in a battle that can only be won by further and further escalation - in tactics, in weaponry, and ruthlessness.
Is it any wonder then that, now, an officer's first instinct is to see a gun or a knife where none exists? That officers approach the mentally ill not with the intent of defusing the situation, but to control the person and the situation at any cost? Is it any wonder, when police are never brought to account for their aggressive tactics, that more and more such aggression takes place?
We live in a society in which we value the right of police officers to be paranoid delusional while we refuse those not in uniform, those in similar and other disturbed states, the right to treatment and to be treated with respect.
Urban Shield exercises in Alameda County will have gone on for at least four years, largely unnoticed until now. But this year they will not go unanswered. Protests are planned for all day October 25th, culminating in a rally and march beginning at 5:00 PM from the Marriott Hotel. The ultimate goal of the protest movement is twofold: to get this entire exercise banned from Oakland next year; the glorification of guns and tools of violence in a city plagued by gun murders is something many people find deeply disturbing, and not just those who protest police actions. And maybe, just maybe, start all of us down a path to awareness of just how insane we as a nation have become in our worship of ever more arms, police, prisons and punishment.