Digby writes about two California police officers acquitted of all charges after their beating to death of a mentally ill homeless man (himself the son of a former police officer) was caught on video. Read the whole horrible thing, including watching the embedded videos and following the links. Discussing a different case, she concludes:
I realize [cases involving mentally ill people] are tough situations for the police. Dealing with people who cannot comprehend your orders — or the stakes in refusal — makes it even tougher. But ask yourself why that officer couldn’t have walked behind the man rather than demanding that he turn around and shooting him full of electricity in the chest when he didn’t. The man’s hands are up, he’s presenting no threat. So often these things end up being a battle of wills rather than a means to an end. It’s one thing if thing if the person is clearly threatening, but too many times it’s police needing to demonstrate their authority. Needing to do that with people who are hearing lots of voices in their heads telling them all kinds of things already, is just pathetic.
Mentally ill people often live horrible lives in the streets of our towns and cities. They face danger from the elements, criminals and each other. And they often end up in police custody for a variety of reasons. Tasers (and worse) are cruelly used against them. It’s medieval.It goes without saying that without cameras taping this incident there would not be a trial.
In just such a case a few days ago in southeastern North Carolina, a police officer shot and killed a mentally ill, 90-pound teenager whom two other officers were holding down on a bathroom floor — after he had been tased. The two officers on the floor with him, one of whom had just tased him, were from the community, were familiar with the kid, and had pretty much talked him down from whatever rage he had been on when the third officer, from another jurisdiction, stormed in, and, within 70 seconds and reportedly after saying, “We don’t have time for this,” shot the kid and killed him in front of his horrified father. (And thank God the bullet didn’t go through the kid, ricochet off the floor, and kill or injure one or both of the officers holding him.)
Handling mentally ill people appropriately requires training, and the training that law-enforcement officers get — which primarily and for good reasons involves getting control of people and situations — needs to be adapted to include mentally ill people who pose no threat or a minor threat (the 18-year-old was holding a screwdriver) so that we don’t end up tasking our officers with executing the mentally ill.
In the case of the California cops acquitted of the beating death, I think the video, which you can find if you follow the links, is damning. The North Carolina case is just days old and it’s not clear yet whether any charges will be filed, although both the cops on the floor with the kid have officially been cleared.
But in both of these cases, if the cops have any consciences at all, they’ll be haunted by what they did for the rest of their lives. And that’s where the rest of us come in.
The job inevitably requires some cops to do things that will have that result. We owe it to our mentally ill brethren to balance the safety of others (including cops) against their well-being. And we who hire, train and pay cops owe it to them to train them well enough that if they ever have to use deadly force, the justification will be so clear that their consciences will be offered legitimate respite from what comes afterward. This is not an outcome that the current overmilitarization of U.S. law enforcement is likely to yield.