Policing, Being Black, and The Criminalization of Mental Illness

Another week, another police officer kills a mentally ill Black man. The fatal shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. is reminiscent of Laquann McDonald, who was killed by former CPD officer Jason Van Dyke for apparently, “acting erratically and wielding a knife.” Miciah Lee, Daniel T. Prude, and many more also had a history of mental illness and were killed by the police. These killings imply that a different approach is necessary. People like Wallace are all stark reminders of mentally ill Black men’s inequities pertaining to law enforcement’s de-escalation protocols and intervention.  Instead of medical assistance, they get bullets, jail time, and suffocated with spit hoods. Police officers are inept when dealing with anyone who exhibits mental health issues; however, Black men with mental illness are more vulnerable and criminalized. I am not sure if crisis intervention training to recognize and respond to these tense situations is the solution. How do police officers push past their fears to arrest white mass shooters without consequence? It proves that they can exercise restraint.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, most people with mental illness are not violent, but using law enforcement as a blunt instrument and first responders contributes to their stigma. People with mental illness are more likely than others to be victims of a crime. Untreated mental illness leads a person to behave erratically, and they have difficulty responding to directives. You compound that with the innate fear that officers have of Black skin, and it is the perfect storm for things to escalate quickly.  In all fairness, persons who exhibit a mental health crisis should not be a police issue. Their inability to precisely evaluate whether or not someone is having a mental health breakdown has tragic results. Officers are action-oriented people who appear to shoot almost immediately in these emergency scenarios. We should defund the police and put more funding into mental health institutions, effective programs, and treatment. A crisis intervention team or person could be dispatched along with an officer, or better yet, develop an emergency response plan that does not involve an officer at all.

The discourse around mental health and cognitive disability often neglects Black people and other minority groups. Society only understands mental illness through a white lens. Mental healthcare is also inequitable. Access to quality mental health services and providers for Black people again proves difficult because of wait times and lack of mental health institutions that are close and accessible to underserved communities. All of these barriers are intentional but are masked by “formal equality.” It means that all individuals are subject to the same rules and standards as everyone else. We know the metrics are not equal. Formal equality does not effectively address inequalities in access to quality services, nor does it consider socioeconomic and political factors contributing to these disparities.

These disparities ultimately lead to untreated mental illness that inevitably gets progressively worse.   When Black families have to call law enforcement as first responders for a loved one’s mental health crisis, it is approached as a criminal response and not a crisis response. Correctional facilities such as Cook County jail will continue to serve as mental institutions for Black people. While incarcerated, Black people are less likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, thus not receiving any treatment. Unless legislation is enacted to eradicate inequalities in healthcare and mental health providers start to advocate to reduce inequities in mental healthcare treatment, this will continue to be a problem for Black communities. Death at the hands of police officers will continue to be the reality of mentally ill Black people.

Kelly Washington is a freelance writer living on the southside of Chicago. You can follow her on social media @ Sunrise and Sugar (Facebook) and @ BlackBFly7 (Twitter).

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