Police Violence Against the Mentally Ill: Why Is There No Public Outcry?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, I reported on the shooting and killing of James Boyd, a homeless man with a history of mental illness. Albuquerque Police confronted Mr Boyd with raised firearms and a police dog, then fired at him from close range. An officer pumped four beanbag rounds into his prostrate form and another unleashed the dog upon him.

     

    The shooting was captured on the helmet cam of one of the officers. The police publicly released the video, and used the video to justify the killing.

     

    The logic of Albuquerque’s police chief in justifying the killing defies belief. He seems to forget that we saw the video, that we saw at least four police officers pointing weapons at a man who posed no threat. 

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    He seems to forget the police had no business harassing the man in the first place (the confrontation took place on land bordering a national park), much less shoot him.

     

    The police chief trotted out the standard excuse that Boyd had a knife (in this case two knifes) and that one of the officers was in danger.

     

    In the old days, prior to the police taking their own videos, this excuse would have held up. But the video tells a different story. Yes, there were two knives. But we don’t see them until the police handler unleashes his dog. No officer was in danger.

     

    According to police (and judicial) logic, the appearance of a knife justifies a fusillade of weapons.

     

    Several years ago, I had lunch with the victim of similar police logic. The man - let’s call him Bill - told me how, soon after graduated from med school, he experienced a psychotic break in his parents’ home. His parents called 911.

     

    The police arrived. Bill picked up a kitchen knife. From the other end of the house, an officer shot him through the throat. Who are you going to believe, the police or some crazy guy? I saw Bill's scar.

     

    The police and the FBI distinguish between “justified” and “unjustified” killings. Basically, if a police officer fires a weapon, it is justified.

     

    The Justice Department gathers no numbers on unjustified killings or killings involving the mentally ill. The best we can do is make estimates. According to a 2012 article on Salon.com, citing two newspaper investigations, “at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”

     

    From the Maine Sunday Telegraph, one of the sources cited in the Salon piece:

     

    In Houston, Texas, a pen-wielding, wheelchair-bound double amputee is fatally shot in the head when police are called to a group home for the mentally ill. In Saginaw, Mich., six police officers gun down a homeless, schizophrenic man in a vacant parking lot when he refuses to drop a small folding knife.

     

    In Seattle, Wash., a police officer fatally shoots a mentally ill, chronic alcoholic as he crosses the street, carving a piece of wood with a pocket knife. In Portland, Ore., police check on a man threatening suicide and wind up killing him with a single gunshot in the back.

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    According to the Sunday Telegraph:

     

    And yet, there has been no national outcry, no effort to tally the number of unnecessary deaths and no discernible leadership from the U.S. Department of Justice and other organizations, including NAMI, to effectively stem avoidable bloodshed.

     

    Just to establish a sense of perspective, I looked up figures on lynchings in the South. According to the 1992 book, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 by Tolnay and Beck, about 2,500 African Americans in ten southern states died in the hands of white mobs over a 50-year period, on average at the rate of one a week.

     

    So - extrapolating from the Salon.com numbers - let’s be generous and assume that the police “only” kill without cause 100 of the mentally ill a year. I am coming up with a rate of police public executions that doubles the rate of southern lynchings. Why is there no public outcry?

     

    More to come ...

     

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    Many thanks to those who commented on my previous post. I look forward to addressing the issues you raised next week. In the meantime, feel free to comment here ...

Published On: April 20, 2014