Charlotte. Baton Rouge. Tulsa. Minneapolis. Los Angeles. Ferguson.
The violence explodes on your television set. You seethe.
“This is 2016 — not 1968. Does the U.S. now stand for ‘Under Siege?”’ you fume.
Your anger is righteous. Racism is prevalent in the United States. And, yes, there are racially tinged police officers infecting American police forces.
But is your anger misplaced? Amidst the over-the-top headlines and screaming protests, a fundamental question remains: What can be done to soothe the mounting bitterness between distrustful African-Americans and a predominantly white police force?
In a multifaceted issue replete with racial and socio-economic implications, one issue has been consistently overlooked: mental illness. Half of those killed during encounters with the police every year in the United States battle mental illness.
Mental illness haunted Ezell Ford. Ford, diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, was walking in a crime-infested Los Angeles neighborhood. A seemingly innocuous exchange between the unarmed Ford and two Los Angeles Police Department officers turned deadly. Angelenos smoldered, demanding accountability for systematic police violence in African-American neighborhoods.
As the spate of police violence shakes our country’s core, long-standing mental health techniques may be a balm. Crisis Intervention Training, otherwise known as CIT, has been embraced in Portland, Oregon to rousing success. CIT emphasizes mental health recognition and understanding. Police officers are trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation, challenging the prevailing notion of policing through brute force. An iron fist? Only after engaging a suspect in a non-confrontational manner.
Portland’s approach has been widely praised for defusing simmering conflicts. In adopting a holistic approach to policing, the Rose City has engaged social services and mental health clinicians. The paradigm shift has transformed Portland’s police department–and destigmatized mental health among admittedly uninformed officers.
Here’s the sad irony: While CIT has yielded results, only 10% of police departments across the United States require the training. This fact–as much as the teeming violence–provokes a mixture of incredulity and anger. Why hasn’t CIT been adopted in racially polarized communities like Los Angeles and Ferguson? Why hasn’t CIT filtered down into other law enforcement positions? Filling in as a security response officer, my colleagues and I were instructed to be firm and forceful when interacting with Seattle’s homeless population. I recoiled as colleagues chortled at the mentally ill and homeless lining Seattle streets.
Traditional policing is premised on this mentality: might makes right. In the haunting Alton Sterling video, an officer is heard shrieking expletives at Sterling. Sterling is frozen–incapable of complying with the officers’ threatening language. Fear has paralyzed him, presaging an untimely and violent death.
The police have a demanding job requiring split-second decisions. On a nightly basis, they confront brazen criminals and position themselves in violent-marred neighborhoods to protect us. If a police officer miscalculates, his life is irrevocably changed. See Shelby, Betty.
While police officers quiet the mounting unrest in Charlotte, why aren’t we providing them with all the tools to protect us? And, as this bloody summer attests, providing the police with all the tools to protect them from us.
Mental health doesn’t discriminate. Let’s ensure the police aren’t when interacting with mentally troubled suspects.
Goode, Erica (25 April 2016). For Police a Playbook for Conflicts Involving Mental Illness. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/26/health/police-mental-illness-crisis-intervention.html?_r=0.