“They reacted based upon the training that they’ve been given from the academy. We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves from risk of great bodily harm.”
I have a new piece on CNN today about police killings of people with psychatric disabilities. I argue that we need to view these cases through the lens of disability, a word that carries with it certain rights, the principle of accommodation, and a different cultural response than “illness” (let alone crazy).
This is not like the case of Ezell Ford, where the man was unarmed. Each of these five featured a person with known psychiatric issues holding a weapon or seemingly holding a weapon. Each ended with in police gunfire. In only one case was there a highly dangerous weapon – a combat knife.
In my CNN piece, I describe the four most recent cases, four killings in two weeks. 2 in California, 1 in Arizona, and of course Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. I filed on Friday.
On Saturday, there was another killing, this one in Ottawa, Kansas.
Joseph Jennings was struggling with depression and anxiety. He left a suicide note on facebook and swallowed pills, but he survived, in part thanks to two officers who showed up at the house in response to emergency calls. A few hours after leaving the hospital, though, Jennings seems to have gone to a Walmart, puchased a BB gun or water gun, and then got the cops called in order to commit suicide by cop.
The parents arrived in time to try and deescalate the situation, but were ordered back (warned they would get shot if they didn’t comply). “Bag him,” the officers said, and they started shooting. First beanbag rounds, then real bullets (at least 16 shots by report). Jennings died.
There are three stories here that I want to emphasize.
1) Jennings had just survived a suicide attempt and then was released from the hospital. We need better mental health care that is accessible and affordable for all.
2) I believe that quote with which I started this piece is true. Police followed their training. It is time to demand new training. CIT training alone isn’t going to cut it, and I hope to have a piece on its limitations (Lawrence Carter-Long and I are working on something) within a week or two, but it’s a start. We need to totally rethink the way that police engage with people who have disabilities of every sort.
And then we will all be safer, disabled and abled alike.
3) In the video (linked here) of the police chief, he says a slightly different version of the quote that everyone is running. He says, “We were thankful that no police officers or sheriff’s deputies was injured while defending themselves from the potential threat of serious bodily harm.”
Look at that justifying language. There was a potential threat of serious bodily harm, the boy didn’t comply, and so the police were justified in their actions. Except there wasn’t really a threat, since he had a BB gun, his parents were there (the dad was about to tackle him to take him down, he was in arms reach).
According to this police officer, just a potential threat justifies deadly force, and surviving a non-existent but potential threat is something to be thankful about.
We are all in danger. When the police think we are dangerous, whether we are or not, they believe themselves to be justified in using lethal force.
Now I am a middle class white guy. I’m not likely to be seen as dangerous, unless my behavior turns erratic due to any number of factors – alcohol, illness, confusion. So my personal stake is pretty low. As we’ve seen in Missouri, any black body, especially male, is regarded as a threat by police. The potential threat is always there, so they can always use lethal force and justify it.
A known-disabled-mind, in a way that is similar, though not tied to centuries of institutional racism, when acting in an “erratic” (that’s a cop incident-report word) fashion, also raises the “potential threat” level.
And when, like Kajieme Powell, you have a black body with a psychiatric disability, there’s basically no hope.