When Not to Call the Police

What’s Happening

Steven Eugene Washington, a Black man with autism, was only twenty-seven years old when a Los Angeles Police Department officer gunned him down in the streets of Koreatown. According to the resulting police report, the unarmed Washington was initially approached by two officers in a police vehicle in response to a loud noise they heard while patrolling. The officers errantly believed that Washington had a weapon. They claimed that he began walking toward their vehicle while remaining unresponsive to their commands. The officer in the passenger seat, who the report says drew his gun before Washington even began walking toward him, fired a single round at Washington’s head, killing him. A year later, then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recommended to the department’s civilian commission that the officers be ruled justified in their use of deadly force. Neither officer faced charges.

A similar incident took place in Walnut Creek, California when two officers shot and killed twenty-three-year-old Miles Hall, a Black man who the officers already knew had mental health issues. The officers arrived in response to distress calls claiming that Hall was acting erratically and had threatened a family member. Hall ran toward the officers with a gardening tool in his hand and didn’t succumb to their commands or attempts to suppress him with non-lethal bean bag rounds, prompting both officers to use deadly force. An almost two-year investigation into the incident ended with no charges brought against the officers.

What’s Wrong

The statistics confirm what many don’t need to look at numbers to know: mentally ill Black men face a consistently higher risk of fatal police encounters than mentally ill White men do. Black men in general face a higher risk than white men do. Years of discourse on improving police de-escalation tactics and alternative methods for handling mental health crises have done little to change these facts. In addition, Americans of all racial and sexual distinctions are especially vulnerable to police use of force. Studies over a decade apart have measured this disparity.

Unencouraging trends such as these beg the question of what lies at the heart of their consistency. We know from the numbers and headlines what factors are at play. But why does the issue persist in spite of the ample efforts of protestors, police reformers and non-profit organizations? Why do bare hands, gardening tools, and vapes elicit such dramatic force from those specially trained to identify deadly situations and abate tamer ones? Where is the disconnect that has claimed and continues to claim so many lives?

What’s to Be Done

When searching for this answer, there are so many places to point that the seeker finds themselves in need of more fingers. Racism, ableism, the never-ending blight of unwarranted police brutality, insufficient de-escalation training, community distrust of police, and a lack of alternative de-escalatory resources often stand out–to no one’s surprise–as primary culprits. Such are the roots that people and organizations hoping to remedy the problem most regularly hack away at.

For example, Washington, DC’s Department of Behavioral Health offers their Community Response Team (reachable by phone at 711 or 202-673-6495). It is an alternative to calling the police in the event of a mental health crisis. Even some calls to 911 will result in the dispatching of the Community Response Team’s behavioral health specialists if it’s decided that the situation calls for them. Crisis support services of this kind exist throughout the country. They are conveniently compiled in an accessible format by Don’t Call The Police, a website that provides resources for several situations in which the presence of police may cause more harm than good.

With one in five Americans living with some kind of mental illness, an increase in options to ensure their safety during a crisis is essential. The proliferation of mental illness is a rapidly advancing phenomenon that requires rapidly advancing methods for support. This is especially significant as police departments across America continue to prove their inability to support it. There are few groups as insistent on the national myth of opportunity and inclusivity as the ones most fervently supportive of the police. But to uphold this myth, it must be recognized that the most basic opportunity—the opportunity to live—and inclusion are being disproportionately denied to a number of the country’s most vulnerable populations. It must be recognized, then it must be amended.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *