Yesterday, KQED – NPR in San Francisco – published a long piece on police killings and psychiatric disability in San Francisco. 58% of all police killings involve forms of disability such as schizophrenia, many of them include weapons, and yet there may be ways to rethink strategies that could save some of the lives.
In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. We also need police whose first instinct is to de-escalate tense situations whenever and however possible, and, when necessary, solve confrontations with the absolute minimum amount of force.
“Psychiatric disability” refers to mental illness that “significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities,” a category that clearly applies to people whose “erratic behavior” got them killed by police.
The distinction matters. In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone behaving erratically and holding a knife?
That’s very much the same question being asked by KQED staff who reported on the piece. Their examples also link to my broader work on the Cult of Compliance. Police come into situations in which they have been called to help with a person exhibiting signs of mental distress. They are trained in CIT, but they still create confrontational situations, then respond with deadly force.
Each of these stories in the SF piece are complicated. Individually, perhaps, they can be understood and excused and justified. Collectively, though, the message is much bigger.
Often it starts with a call for help. A family member, a caretaker or even a stranger dials 911 seeking paramedics to treat someone in a psychiatric crisis. But when there’s a threat of violence, the first responders are usually police, and what started as a call for help can quickly turn deadly for a person with a treatable illness.
The first case is Errol Chang, whose family needed help getting him to the hospital as he turned increasingly paranoid, so they called the police. CIT-trained officers responded.
A series of escalations led Chang to barricade himself inside the house. The Daly City SWAT team arrived with assault rifles and an armored car.
According to the DA review, police were worried Chang might find a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition hidden separately in the house. The SWAT team held their assault rifles trained on the house and took cover behind the armored car.
So there we have the key fact – there’s a chance, however slim, that a man (who ultimately had a knife) might have a rifle, so they operate as if he does have the rifle. They breach the house eventually, Chang stabs an officer in the arm, and gets shot 8 times.
Yanira Serrano-Garcia wasn’t taking her medication for schizophrenia. Teresa Sheehan had stopped taking her medication too (she survived being shot). The piece then moves into looking at this question:
Here’s the question before the court: If police know they are dealing with a person with mental illness, and they use confrontational tactics that can agitate the person, are they violating the Americans with Disabilities Act?
I urge you to go read the whole report, look at the long chart of police shootings, and their discussion of the Memphis Model and its deployment in San Francisco. This is a great piece of reporting and needs a wide audience.