Failure to protect: policing mental illness in North America

The current moment requires that we recognize the crises of mental health and very likely homelessness that will come about as a result of the global pandemic and that we call upon authorities to prepare to deal with them in a more humane way than they have in the past.

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On September 23rd, another police shooting of an African American man took place in San Clemente, California. The incident, caught on video by a bystander, ended with Kurt Andras Reinhold, 42, who was clearly suffering from mental health issues, dead in the street.

A witness to what took place, Nancy Jarvis, told NBC LA, “He (Reinhold) tripped and that’s when they attacked him. He reached for the officer’s gun and then that’s when the shots were fired.”

Although the two Orange County sheriff’s deputies involved reportedly had deescalation training as part of a detail tasked with working with homeless people like Reinhold, having armed and uniformed persons confronting a man clearly in distress, who was, at worst, inconveniencing people by walking in the middle of the busy street, may have needlessly escalated a situation that might have been better handled by a mental health professional.

This is an argument made by some of those who have called for defunding police. The idea being that some of the resources spent on what is clearly a failing strategy to criminalize mental illness can be allocated to those better trained to help those dealing with these issues. In some American cities, the amount spent on police is above 30% of their total budgets, making cuts (where they can still be made after 40 years of austerity in all but name) in other areas almost inevitable.

Demonstrating the callousness that many people, not just the police, show to the homeless in North America, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, at a makeshift memorial put up on the street where Reinhold died, “Truck drivers honked… while youths yelled from their cars, telling mourners to “Get a life!”

Reinhold, deserved better than this. He had gone to college in Georgia at Clark Atlanta University, and eventually became a sales associate at a Nissan car dealership where he worked for a decade, he was also a proud father of two boys and had been a volunteer soccer coach in his community. His struggles with mental illness surely helped push him into homelessness, a situation that afflicts between 20 and 25% of the unhoused (only substance abuse is arguably a bigger problem for these populations).

While mental health is central to what happened to Reinhold, race shouldn’t be dismissed as a contributing factor when one considers the fact that police officers are more likely to view people as more ‘aggressive’ or ‘threatening’ on the basis of their skin color.

The dangers of ‘wellness checks’ and mental health calls

Even for those with housing, individuals suffering from issues like bipolar disorder are too often in danger when dealing with authorities. Here in Canada, as in the United States, ‘wellness checks’ and having the police respond to mental health calls usually puts these vulnerable people at risk.

In a horrifying police bodycam video, the release of which touched off new BLM protests in Rochester, New York, Daniel Prude, at that point naked and put into the ‘spit hood’ that ultimately suffocated him, has his head held down on the ground by a police officer for what is just minutes but seems like an eternity. He died in hospital a week later.

Although Prude’s autopsy showed he had the drug phencyclidine (PCP) in his blood, which he was said to also be struggling with an addiction to, and the Medical Examiner found that this contributed to his death, he’d also been released that day from Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, which wouldn’t comment on his time there for ethical reasons.

However, Daniel’s brother, Joe, who he had been visiting from Chicago, has said he was suffering mental health issues and that he shouldn’t have been released at that time, which now seems obvious.

In a decision he probably now regrets, Joe called police when Daniel left his home that night half dressed, long before officers arrived and found him nearby.

One thing is clear, the Monroe County Medical Examiner found that Prude’s death was a homicide, writing in the official report, “Complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to Excited delirium due to Acute phencyclidine intoxication. The manner of death is Homicide.”

Across the country’s northern border in Canada, proving that the United States isn’t unique in having these issues and why there are growing calls to defund police here, there have been a rash of wellness checks gone wrong since April, when pandemic related lockdowns were in full effect. As those with knowledge of the country might expect, most involved indigenous people (who also suffer disproportionately from police violence in the US, but because they often live in smaller cities and more rural areas these incidents are rarely highlighted by national news outlets).

One of at least four people who died as a result of police wellness checks across the country was Chantal Moore, who had suffered mental health issues in the past and was the chief of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island. Authorities claim that she came to her door with a knife, at which point a police officer shot and killed her.

Tragically, police had called Moore’s mother prior to the wellness check that killed her to find her whereabouts, “I gave the police officer my daughter’s address, only to have them come back and knock on my door at 4:19 a.m. to give me the horrific news that would forever change our lives,” Martha Martin, her mother told local news.

Defund the police to protect the vulnerable

While it’s important to understand that those with mental illness faced terrible injustices from prison like institutionalization to forced lobotomies and electroshock therapy, the post World War 2 era brought some slow advances in terms of treatment and care, although this varied greatly across North America and shouldn’t be exaggerated.

On the federal level in the United States, before leaving office, former President Jimmy Carter, who formed a Presidential Commission to study the issue, signed the Mental Health Systems act into law before leaving office. A prescient piece of legislation that aimed to fairly divide financial responsibilities to provide community based services to those suffering from mental illness.

This legislation was soon repealed by Ronald Reagan in favor of block grants to the states, costing about thirty percent of the federal funding established under his predecessor. Similar austerity was pushed through in Canada during the same period and intensified in the 1990s.

Although correlation doesn’t always mean causation, in this case, the explosion of homelessness that followed does seem to be at least a partial result of the abandonment of the mentally ill that’s continued to the present day.

The current moment requires that we recognize the crises of mental health and very likely homelessness that will come about as a result of the global pandemic and that we call upon authorities to prepare to deal with them in a more humane way than they have in the past. This will require looking at reducing police budgets, whether they like it or not.

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