Genuine question: when officers encounter someone armed but w/history of mental illness, what would be the ideal protocol?
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) October 27, 2014
And then followed a lively Twitter conversation.
I follow Lowery due to his great work in Ferguson, and am glad someone @mentioned me in the conversation to draw me in. The case in question is about the Justice Department not finding anyone culpable in the 2012 shooting death of a man with a penknife who didn’t comply. Regular readers will know my phrase – “the cult of compliance” – which comes into such striking clarity in events like this.
What’s interesting, and tragic, to me, is that when someone gets beaten or killed in a situation like this, the emphasis is always on the final moment. Police surround or approach an armed individual with mental illness, demand the person comply, they don’t comply, and then they kill him or her. The officers are then usually exonerated by the justice system, because at that final moment, there was a real threat to the officers.
But it’s possible to re-imagine a strategic approach to such situations to make that threat less likely to occur.
1. Is there a threat? I contend that a man with a knife standing nowhere close to other people is not an imminent threat. Officers who are aware of the mental illness component have to respond differently than they might in other circumstances. For example, here’s a video/reports of a drunk white guy with a rifle – police are very careful not to push it to an aggressive confrontation and the situation gradually de-escalates.
Compare that to this case, in which police swarm (warning, video is disturbing) to try and take control, resulting in death.
Part of this is, surely, racial.
Part of this, too, is the knife vs gun. It’s less threatening but also seems to mandate a fast response.
I’ll be interested to hear what my police readers (yes, I have police readers, smart folks who really want to build better police procedures) say.
2. If there is a threat, what is the least violent way of dealing with it? I am no fan of TASERS, but they exist precisely for situations like this. Police are, however, legally authorized to use their firearms when confronted with a threat to themselves, and a person close by with a knife is a threat.
The 2012 story in Michigan keeps playing out. I talked about it in this CNN piece on 4 police killings in August. It’s the story of Kajieme Powell, who had a small knife. Michelle Cusseaux, who had a hammer. It’s the story of every mentally ill (I prefer the term psychiatric disability, for reasons I spell out in the article) individual, especially people of color, who are holding a weapon, are not an imminent threat, but who get killed.
I argue that once police engage and create a dynamic in which the person with the disability has to drop their weapon and comply, or be shot, being shot is inevitable. I wrote, “In each case, police demanded that a disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot. Now four more people are dead.” And more people will die.
Looking at the whole, I conclude:
The stories follow a similar pattern. The victim had a weapon and did not respond to police commands to drop it, and so they died. Of course, a person struggling with his or her disability is not likely to follow verbal police commands in a moment of stress. Once the equation reached drop or die, death was inevitable.
The only solution is for the police to avoid getting into that situation if at all possible. Unfortunately, this runs directly against police training. Police are trained to display command presence in the face of uncertainly, seizing control of a situation by issuing orders, demanding compliance and using force on those who won’t obey. Protect and serve has become command and control.
There are other models. Seattle police now teach their recruits to be “guardians.” Others emphasize patience. When Cusseaux frustrated the police by opening and closing the door repeatedly, why not just wait her out? Moreover, where were the Tasers? Taser-overuse is a major problem, but if they have a place in modern policing, surely it’s when confronted by an armed psychiatrically disabled person at close range.
I’m increasingly sure that while CIT – AKA the “memphis model” – provides training and resources for LEOs who take the classes, this particular set of training doesn’t save the life of armed mentally ill individuals. Instead, the police have to decide that shooting is the genuinely last resort and avoid creating the “comply or die” or rather “be not disabled or die” situations.
When shooting is genuinely the last resort, and no one is at risk, you don’t charge in to take command of the situation, but rather keep maximum space between you and the individual. You deploy maximum patience. This goes significantly against standard police training, but … it’s possible.
And here’s the final piece – all of these procedures that might save the lives of people with psychiatric disabilities, they could save your life too. They should become standard.