BY REBECCA HEILWEIL AND CLARE CONNAUGHTON
The militarization of the police, mental health and systemic racism all affect each other.
This month, after a long-string of police shootings, the intersection of these issues became clear in the shooting of Charles Kinsey, an African-American mental health and behavioral therapist and resident of Florida.
On July 18, a 23 year-old man with autism left MACTown Panther Group Homes, short for the Miami Achievement Center for the Developmentally Disabled. The letter from the President available on their website states that the center’s mission “is to create hope and opportunity for People with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities. We believe that all people, at all ages, and all levels of ability, have the potential to learn and grow. We also believe that all individuals are entitled to the same dignity and respect that each of us expects in our lives.” It also specifies that “The people we serve do not fail-but we fail them due to our human and systemic weaknesses.”
The police department stated they were responding to a man threatening to commit suicide with a gun.
Despite lying on the ground with hands up, and specifying that he was a behavioral therapist and that his patient had a toy truck, not a gun, he was still shot by SWAT team member Jonathan Aledda. Aledda allegedly fired three times, and one of the bullets hit Kinsey in his leg. Kinsey is also shown on videos asking his patient to lay down on his stomach.
After the shooting, the head of the local police union, John River, said that the officer was aiming for Kinsey’s patient. He added that Kinsey “did everything right.”
Though severely injured, Kinsey is expected to make a full recovery. The family of the man with autism has said that he is still suffering trauma from the incident.
This cannot be the way we deal with mental health, mental illness and development disabilities in this country. Mental illness and development disorders have historically been addressed through institutionalization, penalization, and other forms of social control. This incident reminds us that we are far from treating mental illness and development disorders as they should be treated. While these are separate and distinct categories, the stigma towards them creates a world where violence, apathy, and militarized police constitute our first response, rather than compassion.
Too often, police responding to calls for mental illness intervention are neither qualified nor trained to deal with them. Too often, we rely on the criminalization of mental illness in order to treat it.
Worst of all, the effects of these programs fall disproportionately on the poor and racial minorities. Charles Kinsey’s shooting exemplifies that the criminalization of being African-American in this country and the stigma of mental illness and developmental disorders both reinforce violence from those who are supposed to protect us.
For further resources regarding the issue of policing and mental illness, Harold Pollock’s “Better Police Training” provides a good introduction. Many police departments have fantastically implemented better training to deal with mental illness and policing. As Pollock highlights, “A disturbing number of violent policing incidents involve individuals living with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, for example, appears to have been cognitively harmed by lead paint exposure, and Chicago’s Laquan McDonald experienced a complicated mix of mental health challenges and learning disabilities.”
Paul S. Appelbaum’s piece, “Mental Health Courts” also provides important background for potential solution to the increasing imprisonment of those with mental illness, often a result of true mental health care falling too financially out of reach for many Americans.
To support efforts fighting police brutality, consider donating to Campaign Zero, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Mothers Against Police Brutality, and countless other regional and national efforts.
For those who are able and comfortable, attending rallies and protests is another way to spark action. Starting conversations in your local communities or the spaces you frequent, even among your friends and families, is another way to promote change. Also consider contacting your local representatives and express your support for fighting police brutality and mental health awareness. Find your local representative in Congress here.