Mental illness: Not a ticket to safely getting out of police encounters

Public misconceptions about mental illness, violence, and the legal system are widespread and deep-seated. They often manifest in the aftermath of rampage violence, with commentators quick to emerge from the woodwork to blame violence on mental illness, and then to suggest that the criminal won’t be brought to justice, that mental illness will be used an ‘excuse’ and that he will ‘get away with it.’ If shooters are people of colour, they’re typically accused of being Muslim extremists, which is revolting and untrue, and if they’re white, they’re assumed to be mentally ill, which is also revolting and untrue — and the way people talk about this is deeply troubling, suggesting that the only thing that drives people to violence is mental illness, that white criminals can evade responsibility for their crimes by pleading a mental health defense. In the wake of violence it’s common to see people sneering about mental illness, rather than delving into the cultural problems that lead to such violence, such as extreme anti-choice attitudes and misogyny.

Statistics on mental health and violence repeatedly indicate that the vast majority of mentally ill people, including those with severe mental illness (SMI) are not dangerous. Of those who are, most are dangerous only to themselves, not to others. Very few people who engage in rampage violence are actually mentally ill, though the media is quick to jump on high-profile cases and hold them up as some sort of indicator. Unfortunately, no agency keeps statistics breaking down violent crimes by known mental health status and though some news organisations have tried, it’s usually with the underlying agenda of painting mentally ill people as dangerous, and I decline to link to their armchair diagnoses and speculation.

Likewise, no one keeps statistics on intersections between police shootings and mental health status, although media organisations have again attempted to do so. In part, we’re lacking such statistics because we still don’t have a clear federal mandate to keep records on police shootings and disclose information about them to members of the public. The call for such a mandate is part of critically needed police reform in the United States, because we cannot comprehend the scope of the problem if we can’t see its extent, and, moreover, we need demographic breakdowns. By painstakingly chasing down every single known police shooting, some trends do develop, with one of the most obvious being the fact that people of colour, especially young Black men, are far less likely to emerge safely from interactions with police.

However, mental illness is also a factor. In cases where mental health status is known, it’s clear that people stand in much more danger when they’re mentally ill and interacting with police. Statistics advanced by various media outlets are quite broad, with some citing as many as 52 percent of fatal shootings and some more like 25 percent, but it’s safe to say that a significant percentage of fatal police shootings involve mentally ill people, and they are certainly disproportionately represented in police shooting statistics (roughly 20 percent of the population experiences symptoms of mental illness at any given time). This includes people who weren’t threats to themselves or others along with people acting erratically who were assumed and later confirmed to be mentally ill. To be mentally ill and interact with police is dangerous, but this truth is often erased.

In the wake of the Planned Parenthood shooting in November last year, some very troubling and dangerous narratives began to emerge around mental illness and police violence. Once it became clear that the perpetrator was a white man, many critics correctly noted that he would likely be taken alive, in stark contrast to a person of colour in the same situation — it’s hard to believe that someone of any other race would have been taken in a ‘peaceful surrender’ after a five hour standoff with police officers in which one was killed and several others were injured, in addition to civilian injuries or death. The next conclusion people jumped to, however, was that he was mentally ill — a familiar stereotype — and that because of his mental illness, he’d be spared a negative outcome in his interactions with police officers, in addition to being able to avoid accountability in court.

This simply isn’t true, there are statistics to disprove it, and the people who advance this kind of language are contributing to mental health stigma. It is undeniably and horrifically frustrating to see so many people of colour murdered in cold blood by police officers responding to such petty acts as playing in a playground, walking down the street, or driving with a taillight out. These cases are unconscionable and people should be angry about them — but lashing out at mentally ill people and using mental illness in this highly weaponised way, to suggest that whites can plead mental illness and avoid being murdered by cops, is not appropriate or effective, not least because of the profound intersections between race and mental illness that contribute to a disproportionate number of deaths of mentally ill people of colour at the hands of police.

Suggesting that terrorists, in this case, or people in general aren’t murdered by police when they’re mentally ill is a gross mischaracterisation. Police shootings across the US involve mentally ill people on a nearly daily basis, and in situations like the standoff in Colorado, had the man’s mental health status been known, or had he been suspected to be mentally ill, there’s a high probability he would have been carried out in a bodybag. As in other cases where mentally ill people have been shot, the killing would have been justified with claims that he posed a threat to the public or himself, that he was too erratic to surrender.

Mental illness isn’t a golden ticket or a get out of jail free card. To the contrary, it’s often a death warrant. To fight police violence and brutality in the United States, people who belong to classes routinely victimised by police need to work together, not least because of the significant overlap between these groups. Sane people of colour need to avoid mischaracterising the role of mental illness in police interactions, and the same goes for whites who call themselves ‘allies’ and make ignorant comments on Twitter in performative gestures in the wake of violence. White mentally ill people need to avoid mischaracterising the role of race in police interactions, as do their ‘allies’ who also take to social media to make irritating statements in performative gestures of their own. All need to work together to push back on the terrorist/crazy dichotomy that quickly arises in the wake of mass shootings, because it’s the only way to build a better world.

Image: Policemen, Timo, Flickr