I’m angry. I’m a mentally ill person tired of seeing people like us die. I’m angry that no matter what we do, police intervene where they are not wanted and not trained and don’t give a damn about us. So many people in the middle of a mental health break have been murdered by police that I can’t list them all. But I hope that people will learn about the thousands I couldn’t write about. And say their names.
Eleanor Bumpurs, in 1984, was scheduled for eviction from her public housing unit, where she refused rent payments to protest maintenance problems. The psychiatrist sent by New York City Housing Authority to speak to her judged her psychotic, unable to care for herself and needing hospitalization.
That Oct. 29, faced with eviction and hospitalization, Bumpers threatened to throw boiling lye at whoever approached. When called for assistance, the New York Police Department Emergency Service Unit, purportedly trained to control emotionally and mentally disturbed individuals, barged into her apartment. They found Bumpurs in her living room holding a 10-inch knife. Instead of seeking to subdue her without violence, officer Stephen Sullivan fired two shots from his 12-gauge shotgun, killing her.
Police killing is part of a pattern of failure that police departments have with the mentally ill, particularly if they are Black and Brown. The numbers themselves should shock: The mentally ill are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than people without mental illness. (Treatment Advocacy Center, December 2015)
Aug. 1, 2016. In Randallstown, Md., police came to Korryn Gaines’s home to serve a warrant for a traffic violation. According to the Washington Post, Gaines suffered from lead poisoning and had another unrelated mental illness. Believing that police were there to kidnap her and her son, she pulled out a gun.
More police gathered through the day. Paranoid that police were the devil, Gaines barricaded further. Police Officer Royce Ruby Jr., believing she was firing her shotgun toward the police, fired on her and killed her.
If the descriptions of that day are accurate, Gaines might be diagnosed as paranoid and potentially experiencing a psychotic disorder at the time. One key tool for de-escalating a crisis is to avoid challenging psychotic thinking. But police didn’t do that. They just fired wildly, hitting Gaines’s son in the process.
There was even a police unit in Randallstown dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally ill, but were they called in? No. Gaines was failed by a system built to harm more than help.
Killing people in crisis
A man with bipolar disorder, Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney was shot by police in August 2016 in Harrisburg, Pa. Police claimed Pinckney was holding a knife, threatening his mother. Shaleek’s mother, Kim Thomas, emphatically denied that this was the case. (Pennlive.com, Aug. 8, 2016)
Pinckney’s death at the hands of police highlights a complete failure to reach out to the mentally ill as people in crisis. Instead of taking the time to de-escalate the potential violence — potential because his mother only categorized it as a little fight — they amped up the violence and killed him. They lied to his mother, claiming he was only tased, but the truth was that he was shot through the heart. Pinckney left behind a two-week-old child.
On Oct. 26, people called emergency services in Philadelphia to come for Walter Wallace Jr., a mentally ill man and father experiencing a mental health crisis. According to his mother, police first laughed at him and her. The next time his mother called, she specifically asked for an ambulance. It didn’t come.
When Wallace decided to step off his porch, the police drew their guns, his mother begging them not to shoot him. They fired 13 bullets at him, killing him.
Instead of sending trained people who deal with mentally ill people, Philadelphia’s emergency systems sent cops who have a history of mistreating Black people. They knew he was mentally ill, and they killed him anyway.
Gary Page was a white man who had a history of schizophrenia and depression, and he treated these symptoms on his own with alcohol. But something in March 2015 broke him. He drank and became drunk and decided to slit his wrists; he grabbed a starter pistol and literally begged the cops to shoot him.
Instead of responding to this very obvious mental illness incident with care and competent treatment, the police obliged him and shot him in the head and torso.
Say their names!
These are only a few of the people with mental health issues whom police have killed.
Having and using trained mental health counselors, who have experience working with oppressed people on such calls, is a good start to avoiding these tragedies. Having anyone with mental-illness experience, operating as an emergency unit would be a good start. Ambulance crews with training in mental illness would be a good start. That is not happening.
Police are called the guardians of society. But they really serve the ruling class and protect this class’ property interests. They are not oriented toward defusing a mental health crisis. We cannot pretend as though police are the solution.
We must continue to honor the memory of Eleanor Bumpurs, Korryn Gaines, Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney, Walter Wallace Jr., Gary Page — and others too numerous to name — by fighting for revolutionary new ways of seeing mental health crises and mental illness and people who are experiencing them.
The repressive force of the state is unsuitable for defusing a crisis. Really, we need a revolutionary people’s mental health care unit.
Until then, we must speak their names loudly until we drown out the police and forces change.
Keep the pressure on for justice!
Say their names!