The Intersection Between Mental Health and Police Brutality

Photo by Berlin Refugee Strike | CC BY-SA 3.0

by Khalid Mohieldin

The city of Philadelphia has been roiled by the police killing of yet another Black man after a summer defined by protests against police brutality. Walter Wallace Jr. was a 27-year-old father and aspiring rapper when on October 26, 2020, Philadelphia police officers shot at him at least 14 times and killed him. Wallace’s family described him as a family man who’d been battling bipolar disorder, and on that particular morning, police had already been called twice to help him deal with a mental health crisis. In widely circulated social media footage of the incident, Wallace’s mother can be heard pleading with police not to shoot him, and trying to de-escalate the situation before police eventually killed him.

Wallace’s fatal shooting is one of many high-profile police killings of people living with disabilities to occur these past two years. Daniel Prude, 41, was killed by Rochester police officers after ingesting PCP, a drug he’d taken up after the suicide of his nephew. Nicolas Chavez, 27, was shot 21 times and killed by Houston police officers on April 21, 2020. Police had been called to the scene after Chavez, in what seemed to be an attempted suicide, began hurling himself onto oncoming cars. Chavez had suffered from depression and anxiety. Elijah McClain, 23, was killed by Denver police officers on the night of August 24, 2019. McClain lived with autism and asthma.

This isn’t anything new. In the United States, living with disabilities is explicitly linked to over-policing. Nationwide, police departments estimate that 10% of their day-to-day contact with the public involves someone with a mental illness. This arises from the fact that across hundreds of cities, police departments have acted as the sole, de-facto public resource available to neighborhood residents. For example, police officers are regularly dispatched to remove “restless” homeless persons from private property, despite the fact that there is no immediate danger presented in such a situation. Coupled with the fact that anywhere from 25% to 45% of homeless individuals are living with some kind of mental illness, it becomes clear to see the overarching, violent influence that police have over people/communities with disabilities. Furthermore, Black Americans are more likely than white people to suffer from chronic health conditions, and are less likely to receive adequate mental health care. All of this culminates into the fact that Black people are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police than white people. In New York City alone, 16 of the last 18 people with mental illnesses shot by police were Black or other persons of color.

Research has again and again demonstrated that when police take on the role of social workers or mental health experts, there are horrifying, fatal consequences. In 2015, The Washington Post found that in 36% of police shootings, officers were explicitly called to help the person receive medical treatment, but fired shots instead. Twenty-two percent of fatal encounters involving police followed calls about “disruptive behavior” that was directly linked to a victim’s mental illness and/or substance abuse. All in all, nearly half of all Americans killed by police have some kind of disability, and individuals suffering from untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in interactions with law enforcement. 

Even outside of fatal shootings, interactions between persons with disabilities and law enforcement can still end violently. Persons with disabilities are much more likely to be arrested; disability advocates in Utah report that students with disabilities make up 12% of the student population but 25% of arrests. Nationwide, up to 75% of those in the juvenile justice system have some sort of disability. Additionally, common policing practices are inherently violent when enforced upon individuals with disabilities. For instance, many police jurisdictions regularly fail to cooperate with deaf individuals. As disability justice activist and community lawyer Talila Lewis explains, “the simple act of handcuffing a deaf person is a form of violence if a deaf person uses their hands to communicate. That in and of itself is violent.” 

Overall, police aren’t well trained in dealing with mental health crises. One study found that nationwide, during recruit training, police academies spend a median of 58 total hours on firearm training, but only eight hours on de-escalation or crisis intervention. However, more research has suggested that armed police officers are simply inadequate in responding to mental health crises, and in fact, they often present even more danger in such situations. A 2019 study found that detainee hostility and disrespect to officers can increase officers’ self-reported suspicion, perceived danger, antagonistic emotions (anger, frustration, annoyance), and fear. This culture of compliance has long been examined among police units, and explains why law enforcement interaction with individuals with disabilities often end so violently. Particularly in high-stress situations, people with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions, while people with psychiatric disabilities often have difficulty responding to instructions — both of which often lead to officer misdiagnosis of a mental health crisis as an act of violence.

We must seriously call into question the criminal justice system’s involvement in matters of mental health. Mental illness and substance abuse are public health issues, not criminal issues. In no other arena of health, physical or mental, do we rely so heavily upon law enforcement. Yet, police officers are consistently among the first responders to mental health crises. Even police officers themselves agree that they are ill-equipped at handling such situations. As one Alabama police officer remarked, “I’m not a social worker.” He later claimed that social service calls amounted to “bogus stuff” for police officers trying to focus on crime. 

In response to the continuous killing of persons with disabilities by police officers, many cities across the country have begun experimenting with social worker crisis replacement programs. In 1989, Eugene, Oregon became one of the first cities to adopt such a program, where a medic and trained crisis responder respond to crisis calls in lieu of armed officers. In 2018, the program handled 20% of 911 calls in the city, and at a much cheaper price. Elsewhere, in Austin, Texas, first responders to psychiatric crises can request mental health professionals to assist them at the scene. In 2011, Seattle launched LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which allows cops to turn over low-level offenders to addiction counselors and/or social workers. Since then, LEAD programs have been launched in 21 states, including a chapter in Philadelphia. 

Of course, these programs have their flaws, and not every program is created equally. If not done with care and precision, these programs do little to fundamentally change the violent outcomes of police interactions with persons with disabilities. One major distinction to note is that many cities have adopted crisis intervention training, as opposed to non-law enforcement based crisis intervention teams. In 2004, Rochester, New York launched its own Crisis Intervention training program. Sixteen years later, it could not prevent the murder of Daniel Prude.

As of 2019, fewer than 1,000 Philadelphia police officers took the city’s mental health first-aid training program. This trend certainly isn’t exclusive; in 2019, the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that police crisis intervention curriculum has only modestly reduced the number of arrests of people with mental illnesses. Of course, the data remains fuzzy, though what we do know is that across dozens (if not hundreds) of police municipalities, crisis intervention programs are often treated as political check boxes that hold no real merit on substantial police reform. It’s a major reason why research has been doubtful of police mental health training as opposed to specified social worker diversion teams. Ron Bruno, executive director of Crisis Intervention Team International, states that “If you keep throwing money at training officers, and that’s all you do, and not address the system around mental health care, you’ll continue to have nothing but problems.” Activists like Bruno have applauded the Eugene, Oregon model of crisis intervention, as such programs have taken police officers out of the equation, rather than expect them to show restraint with a gun placed firmly by their hip. The Memphis model of mental health policing, a more conservative approach that trains officers rather than replacing them, has, unsurprisingly, been criticized by advocates for being voluntary and providing insufficient training altogether.

Disability justice advocates have called for greater use of police diversion programs, such as Eugene’s original 1989 program. Research has suggested that such programs have been effective in reducing police brutality against people living with disabilities, but such an approach must be holistic. Advocates in favor of the Eugene model argue that more radical approaches to crisis intervention must be applied; specifically, models that seek to avoid bringing people with disabilities into contact with police in general.

To truly curb the epidemic of police brutality against persons with disabilities, we need to stop relying on police as social workers. This not only includes the implementation of police diversion and crisis intervention programs, but also greater access to mental healthcare. After all, police show up in these situations in the first place because people have no one else to call. Until we finally provide people with disabilities the support they need, we cannot expect police officers to show restraint when all they’ve been taught is to constrain, shoot, and kill.


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