Sending the police to deal with mental health crises is bad for everyone, so why does it continue to happen?
On September 27th, Sarah Olango noticed her brother Alfred was behaving erratically. Although Alfred had no prior history of mental illness, Sarah had seen Alfred’s mental state deteriorate since the death of his childhood friend a few days prior. Fearing that her brother was suffering a nervous breakdown, Sarah dialed 911 to request emergency assistance. An hour later, armed police officers responded to the call. Officers confronted Alfred in a parking lot and after he ran away, officers chased him down, cornered him, and killed him. The officers who responded to the call killed Alfred within 1 minute of arriving.
The reaction by police was to attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility and instead place the blame on Olango.
El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis said Olango ignored multiple orders from an officer and "concealed his hand in his pants pockets." He paced back and forth as two officers talked to him, then "rapidly drew an object from his front pants pockets, placed both hands together on it and extended it rapidly toward [one] officer, taking what appeared to be a shooting stance," the chief said.
Putting aside the many questionable parts of the police narrative of events, the police reaction to the killing is indicative of police culture as a whole. In the eyes of the justice system, and those who support it, victims of police violence bring the violence on themselves. As Ron Martinelli writes on officer.com, “People who don’t make stupid life decisions; are compliant with police when contacted; and who don’t resist detention or arrest; almost never have problems with police; or end up hospitalized or in a morgue. It’s just that simple.”
The question is, do supporters of the police really think Alfred Olango made “stupid life decisions” by having a nervous breakdown after the death of his close friend? Do these apologists for police violence really find it so hard to believe that someone in a disturbed mental state would react so uncooperatively to being cornered by hostile armed strangers?
Robert Ethan Saylor’s “stupid life decisions”
Robert Ethan Saylor was 26 when his life was cut short by the police. A young Frederick County, Maryland resident who suffered from Down’s syndrome, Saylor “idolized” police officers. “Fascinated with law enforcement, [he] would sometimes call 911 just to ask the dispatchers a question. He loved talking to police officers and was a loyal follower of the TV show NCIS.”
In January of 2013, Saylor was taken by his nursing aide to a screening of the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Reportedly, Saylor loved the movie, and clapped at its conclusion. He then demanded to be allowed to stay in the theater for a second showing. His nursing aide tried to insist they leave, but Saylor was adamant. The aide called Saylor’s parents who told her to just be patient, and let him cool off. While the 18-year-old aide left to pull up the car, the theater manager confronted Saylor, and ordered him to either leave or purchase another ticket. Saylor refused, and the theater manager called the police. By the time the aide returned to get Saylor, police officers were already on the scene. As the aide later recounted , “Then the sheriff went in and started talking to Ethan and Ethan was cursing at him…I then said, ‘Please don’t touch him, he will freak out.’” Officers ignored the aide and forcibly dragged Saylor from his seat, holding him down as they attempted to handcuff him. “I heard Ethan screaming, saying ‘ouch,’ ‘don’t touch me,’ ‘get off’ and crying. Next thing I hear is nothing..I tapped him and said, ‘Wake up, Ethan’.” Ethan died during the struggle after his larynx was crushed.
After his death was ruled a homicide, Frederick County police took over the mandatory investigation. Unsurprisingly, the Frederick County police investigation of Frederick County police officers did not lead to any charges being filed. Ethan’s death, as the argument goes, was his own fault, a result of his “stupid life decisions”. He chose to remain in his seat, he chose to resist police officers, but was being born with Down’s syndrome a “stupid life decision”? The very notion is ridiculous, and yet that is undeniably the single most important cause of Saylor’s death.
Kayden Clarke’s “stupid life decisions”
In February of this year, Mesa, Arizona police were dispatched to the home of Kayden Clarke, a 24-year-old who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, after a friend reported that Clarke might be considering suicide. Shortly after arriving, police burst into Clarke’s home and shot him. Police claimed they opened fire because they felt “threatened” by Clarke who they claim was armed with a kitchen knife.
The incident may have passed with no mention were it not for the fact that Clarke was a minor internet celebrity. Clarke made headlines in 2015 for posting a video of himself being comforted by a trained service dog while he suffered an Asperger’s related sensory breakdown. Further videos of him criticizing the Arizona medical system, specifically his struggles to get his insurance to pay for gender reassignment surgery, had high viewer counts.
One can think of many ways that Clarke’s death could have been avoided, but none of them were pursued. Officers involved with killing Clarke were absolved of any responsibility.
Our own stupid decisions
The most obvious question raised by these incidents, is why send the police to handle situations they are clearly not trained for? If anything, the police are trained first and foremost to maintain a monopoly on violence. They are frequently encouraged and trained to be violent, and violence is part of the police culture. In the documentary, Do Not Resist, prominent police trainer Dave Grossman tells a class that, “the sex they have after they kill another human being will be the best sex of their lives…’Both partners are very invested in some very intense sex’ he says. ‘There’s not a whole lot of perks that come with this job. You find one, relax and enjoy it.’”
And these are the people we are almost always sending to deal with mentally fragile individuals. That being said, there are a few alternatives to this police dominated system. Sarah Olango, for example, resides in San Diego county, which is one of the only places in the country that has a professional emergency psychiatric response team. The team, called PERT, is staffed with 32 clinicians, and there are supposed to be 5 PERT clinicians on-duty at all times. That means that at any time there is ideally 1 PERT clinician for every 642,000 residents of San Diego County. Unsurprisingly, given the ratio of clinicians to residents, when Sarah Olango dialed 911 (three times in fact, no help was sent after the first two calls), no PERT clinicians were available, so the police were sent instead. And while there is a dire shortage of public clinicians in this country, the US also has 1 state and local law enforcement agent with the power to arrest for every 400 people. This says a lot about where our priorities lie.
And does this make sense for anyone? Certainly it produces bad outcomes for people who need psychiatric help, but what does this mean for society at large? When police respond to calls for psychiatric assistance, they often simply brutalize and/or arrest the person who needs help. Right now there are an estimated 356,000 people with mental illness incarcerated. After incarceration, more than half of these prisoners, often saddled with insurmountable fines and unpaid child support payments1 , will be re-arrested. This is awful for the prisoners, but it also takes a huge toll on society at large. At its most basic level, it drains a massive amount of resources. The average taxpayer is thought to pay around $31,000 a year per inmate. A study by New York City's Independent Budget Office found that the city pays “$167,731 to feed, house and guard” each inmate for a year.
So why continue to brutalize and arrest the mentally ill? If it’s bad for society, and it’s bad for the mentally ill, then what is the point? Why not just transfer funding from law enforcement agencies to clinicians, thereby saving money and lives? Well, aside from corporate interests like the prison industry, and the lobbying of professional law enforcement agents and lawyers, the major factor stopping this from taking place is a general hatred of solidarity. If people start caring about one another, if they start viewing each other with empathy and understanding, then that would really tear at the fabric of our society, which is based primarily around individualism. As long as we view the misfortune of others as nothing more than “stupid life decisions,” we ensure that our society remains atomized, hostile, and ripe for creating the conditions that cause mental illness in the first place.
- 1 Herivel, Tara, and Paul Wright. Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration. New York: New, 2007. Print.