Mentally ill and murdered by police

Published on Socialist, by Hannah Wolfe, December 11, 2012.

A SURGE in activism against racist violence, starting with the protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, has cast a spotlight in different cities on the main organized purveyor of such violence: the police.

This greater attention has revealed the scandalous facts about police killings. Some were already well known–for example, that people of color are far more likely to be the victims of police. 

But others aren’t so well known. Like this one: around one in every eight victims of police murder from the start of 2012 was mentally ill or in severe mental distress, according to an examination of information compiled at the Wikipedia website.

Data on killings by law enforcement officers are notorious for gross underreporting. The Orlando Sentinel reported on a study of killings by police from 1999 to 2002 in Central Florida, which found that national databases included only one-fourth of the deaths reported in the local news media … //

… TWO RECENT cases in New York City expose the nightmarish details of killings that should never have happened.

On September 25, 28-year-old Mohamed Bah, originally from Guinea, was killed by the New York Police Department. The New York Daily News report on the death was headlined: “NYPD Officers Kill Knife-wielding Madman in Harlem.” With just the headline, the official version of the story is told or implied. “officers” were forced to kill a monstrous “madman” who was clearly threatening someone’s life. And the headline tells us this happened in Harlem, letting us know that the “madman” was probably black.

For those more suspicious of the police, the Village Voice website cautioned: “Before we go sounding the excessive-force alarms, it should be noted that the deceased perp slashed at least two of the officers with a 12-inch kitchen knife–it wasn’t until he tried a third time that police shot him with real bullets.” So the police must have exercised amazing restraint, shooting the “perp” only as a last resort … //

… WHO COULD seriously describe these victims of police murders as “perps”?

Most people with serious mental illness aren’t violent, and most violent acts aren’t committed by people with mental illness. In fact, research proves the opposite–that people with serious mental illness are at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

One study conducted in 1984 found that people with serious mental illness are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. And people with psychiatric disorders are four times more likely to die in encounters with police as compared to members of the general population.

What factors lie behind these statistics, making the mentally ill more vulnerable to violence, particularly from police?

Before the 1970s, most mentally ill people in the U.S. were institutionalized. Then, in the guise of humanitarian reform, institutions were shut down en masse, with the promise of fabulous-sounding community mental health agencies. These, of course, never materialized.

Now, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, more mentally ill people are in jails and prisons than hospitals. At least 16 percent of inmates in prisons and jails have severe mental illness, according to the report. Of course, they receive little or no treatment while behind bars. Instead, the mentally ill are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement and more likely to be beaten by prison guards … //

… SO WHAT can be done about this epidemic of police violence against some of the most vulnerable people in society?

Many cities have grassroots organizations, often composed of the mentally ill and formerly incarcerated, fighting for the rights and lives of people with mental illness–for example, Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities.

In addition, organizations and networks have been formed across the country by families and their supporters to win justice for loved ones killed by police. Within cities and between them, some of these groups are uniting to fight around individual cases and for wider goals of changing the system. There is strength in numbers, especially in the face of what can be crippling grief, anger, hopelessness and fear.

Activists who challenge police brutality and violence need to recognize that the issue of mental illness is bound up with their struggle. The movement can make immediate demands for changes that would alleviate suffering right away: psychiatric crisis response teams composed of trained mental health professionals; access to mental health services for all through a single-payer health care system; better prison conditions; an end to solitary confinement and overcrowding; and money for mental health and drug treatment in prison.

Of course, none of these measures would address the root causes of police violence or the oppression that the mentally ill suffer. Why has there been a sevenfold increase in mental illness since the 17th century? Why a threefold increase in the past three decades? What is it about this system we live that grinds people down, isolates them, teaches them to blame themselves for their suffering and pushes them to the edge?

The answers to those questions go to the heart of the sickness of the capitalist system. We have a struggle ahead of us in the here and now to challenge police brutality and the wider injustices of the mass incarceration system. Those struggles will need to address questions of disinvestment of social programs and jobs–and beyond that, the roots of inequality in a capitalist society.

Only by taking up these wider questions will we be able to transform a society that relies on police racism and violence to sustain itself.
(full text).


Public Citizen: Corporate Access to State Lawmakers Facilitated by Taxpayer-Funded Associations (or How corporations corrupt U.S. politics), on Socialist (first on, by Steve Horn and Sarah Blaskey, November 20, 2012;

The war on labor in Michigan, on Socialist, report by ERIC RUDER, Dec. 12, 2012.

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