Analysis of Blacks, Police and Mental Illness – By Yvonne Sam

 From Threat to Death—- Analysis of Blacks, Police and Mental Illness.

Opinion – By Yvonne Sam

A Mental Health Tactical Team is the answer to this age old woe

Opinion - commentary -analysisLike so many millions of television viewers, my emotional psyche was rocked to its very core on hearing of the needless killing of yet another Black individual, again at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. Reports state that the victim Deborah Danner was known to the New York Police Department as having a mental illness, and on the night of her demise they had been called, to take her to the hospital as had been done in the past.

This pattern of lethal harm inflicted on Black people with mental illness is far from solely an American problem, as the deaths of mentally disturbed individuals at the hands of police have also plagued the Canadian scene for decades.   

It is blatantly apparent that on account of the double stigmatization at the crossroads of blackness and mental health, death is too often the police’s solution to distress.

Following each shooting,the dying down of outcries, innumerable inquests and research studies there have been calls for police reform, revolutionized training for front-line officers in identifying and handling mental health crises, and the conversion of existing unaccountable forces into actual allies for public safety in the very communities they are sworn to protect and serve.

Sadly, these calls for improved mental illness training, amendments to “use of force” policies and changed rhetoric have created some progress, yet fatal outcomes disproportionately affecting Blacks persist. The evidence is in, the jury has deliberated and the verdict clearly shows that more training is neither the answer nor an acceptable panacea.  Law enforcement agencies across the border and the board continue to pose a threat to the vulnerable along with a proclivity for the escalation of mental health crises.

Looking Back

In the quest towards lifesaving solutions, it would be foolhardy to overlook the underlying reasons for the increasing face to face encounters between the mentally ill and the police. Over five decades ago the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals began, based on the well-intentioned neo-liberal premise that their needs would be better served by various community networks, as well as their families. There was also the widely held view, by the general public and police officers associating mental disorder with having a violent or criminal nature.

Such an association is the consequence of exposure to a ubiquitous media that all too often portrayed the mentally ill in a negative fashion. It is the very same media that influences the communities in which the community’s police were raised.  The well intentioned reasons underlying deinstitutionalization created an environment that made the police the de facto mental health response unit.  Regrettably, the police do not always feel that the carrying out of such a function is part of their job.

Despite the fact that studies after studies along with mounting evidence have convincingly concluded that police officers are repeatedly either poorly equipped or poorly trained to respond effectively to the mentally ill.  It is utterly confounding and baffling as to why police officers are even considered a resource for dealing with the mentally ill, and are still the agency of first response in  apparent incidents of emotional or mental health distress.

Training but not Gaining

Police training has always been an issue. There have been countless studies, conducted from various disciplines regarding police encounters with the mentally ill, and the majority recommends increased training in the area of mental illness. It has been shown that officers receive dissimilar hours of training and inconsistent training methods at both the recruit level and ongoing in-service training.Also missing in action is a standard curriculum, and a standard best practice towards instruction.

Despite the fact that training provides some degree of understanding towards a procedural response, due to the afore-mentioned training insufficiency and inconsistency, over-reaction can also take place during an encounter with the mentally ill. When a police encounters a person in crisis, the response can be as varied as the personality of the involved officer. Officers respond differently to perceived threatening situations and when a problem of communication is also present, an encounter can then become deadly. It should be borne in mind that all mental illnesses are not equal, a fact that is not shared by the general public. Psychiatric patient and mentally ill are predominant classifications, which are consistent with findings from television dramas.

The Police is not suited to fill the bill when dealing with the mentally ill.

Even if more training is given to law enforcement agencies the problem will remain unaltered, and continue to stare at us from coffins and graves.  For example, in the state of Maryland, the mandatory requirements for becoming a licensed mental health professional  are 3,000 hours of work experience and 144 hours of direct face to face supervision. It is clearly evident that such requirements bearout the fact that the police are not mental health professionals, neither  should they be expected to be, nor act as if they were. Sometimes the mere presence of an officer in uniform, the loud sirens, flashing lights, loud aggressive commands can all serve as the catalyst in intensifying the psychosis of someone in crisis.Granted that officers are trained to be authoritative and take immediate control of a situation, those suffering from mental illness would benefit from a different approach altogether.

How isthe individual encountering the police viewed? Is he/ she a threat? a danger? an animal? an outcast? or just a person suffering from a mental disorder?  The answer differs depending on the viewer or the responder?  The basic problem lies in the fact that when families recognize their loved ones as having a mental health crisis, they feel that the only person to call at any time and who will respond quickly is the police. Training is not gaining, and the families become ultimate losers when police come answering in cruisers.  The police should be relieved of such duties and replaced by a nationwide on-call Mental Health Tactical Team, comprising of trained and fully qualified mental health professionals, trained in the de-escalation of situations involving persons with a known mental illness.

Operating in a system similar to 911, the phone number of the team would be made available nationwide, with an established data base for prompt client identification. The team would work in close conjunction with doctors, community health agencies, hospitals, prisons, and psychiatric institutions so that new patients are immediately listed and the possibility of marginalization averted.

Peelian principles of old that went somewhat cold

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel credited with the Metropolitan Police Act outlined 9 principles of policing. I will examine those that deal specifically with the intended role of the police, and which if followed would produce stronger arms of the law and greater public respect.

Rule 1: states that the basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

Rule 2: stipulates that the ability of the police to perform their functions is dependent upon public approval of police existence. While speaking volumes in itself, the present state of police-public relations in Canada and the U. S. A immediately provides the answers.

Rule 9: The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

It is apparent that from the inception there was a misconception on the part of the law enforcement agencies that caused the mental health safety net to be rent. The Peelian advice has been long given, frequently disobeyed with resultant loss of human lives.  No longer can the public sit by and allow ill equipped and undertrained police officers to cause any further harm. We cannot keep repeating the same thing over and over again expecting a different result each time. Let the law enforcement agencies perform the tasks for which they have been trained and are best suited for, and bring in the professionals void of weaponry to deal with the mentally ill whom they fully understand.

May the soul of Deborah Danner and the countless mentally ill others that met death at the hands of law enforcement representatives rest in peace, and may the families’’ pain serve as the stepping stone for long term gain.   The clarion has been sounded. A Mental Health Tactical Team is the answer to this age old woe. So let us get started and others will soon follow.

Yvonne Sam.


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