Police, the Mentally Ill, and How the Former Deals with the Latter

by Julianne Hing

Some unsurprising news out of San Francisco shed a little bit of light on a recent spate of fatal officer-involved shootings in the city. Turns out that last June then-San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon canceled a 9-year-old program providing 40 hours of training for city police on how to respond to crisis calls involving people with mental illness. The Bay Citizen reported this week that the program got cut in a department budget squeeze, and while the department has promised to bring some form of it, no date's been given yet.

Since June at least three mentally ill people were shot by the SFPD in separate incidents. Two were fatal. One of those killed was a 46-year-old man named Vinh Bui who was holding a knife, maybe a scalpel, when police burst into his home. They were responding to a call about an attack on a 15-year-old girl in the house. Another was Michael Lee, a 43-year-old man police also said had a history of mental illness. Lee lived in a residential hotel and neighbors complained about the nuisance his loud music was causing that day. Police entered his room, Lee apparently had a weapon on him, there was an altercation, and then they killed him.

The incident that shocked people the most was one that was caught on video last week. San Francisco police shot a man in a wheelchair after he either threw a knife or stabbed an officer in the left shoulder. Police said the man had been slashing tires in the neighborhood.

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Reports like these do nothing to dispel damaging, faulty cultural assumptions that the mentally ill are more prone to violence, I know. They're not. (Thanks too to amandaw(swpa) who pointed that out on Monday.) But such deadly confrontations are not uncommon either. In California especially police have become the de facto first responders to crisis calls involving people with mental illness as a direct result of then-Gov. Reagan's shuttering of the state mental health hospitals in the 1960s. The community health centers he promised as their replacement never appeared, and attending to emergencies involving the mentally ill fell largely on police officers. Absent a massive restructuring of the mental health system, there's not much way around it. City police departments absolutely need comprehensive police training on how to interact with people who are mentally ill.

There was a time when I might have called for automatic sanctions for any officer who needlessly took a person's life. I still kind of like the idea of that, but such admittedly ignorant policy demands have come from a place of anguish in the search for a taste of cop accountability. I'm on the criminal justice beat over at Colorlines, which I've occasionally thought should be renamed the misbehaving cops beat. It's a joke, but some days I really mean it. When I was just starting out covering cop brutality I thought the issue would be so straightforward. I could find a moral center so quickly. My limited exposure to high-profile cases like Sean Bell's, Amadou Diallo's, Rodney King's -- unarmed black men brutalized or killed by police officers who were all eventually acquitted -- made the line bright and clear. So much abuse, and never any justice.

I know now it's only a part of the story.

My reporting also tells me that most cops don't fancy themselves cowboys. Punitive drug policies and harsh policing of poor communities are a product of a political culture that likes the idea of redemption, but loves the taste of blood more. Police are actors within that system, and some are as enthusiastic as others are conflicted about their role. Out on the streets they're the ones with the guns and the legal rights to use them, it's true, but police are also victims of these grave, systemic injustices. (Sometimes in very literal ways, too.) Demanding better of police means acknowledging that fact. I admit that was something of a revelation when it finally hit me, but I've tried not to forget it.