Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mental Health and Policing - One Day's News

Yesterday, CNN published a piece of mine on the death of Kristiana Coignard. Here's how she died [warning - the video is very disturbing, so follow the link with caution]:
In late January, Kristiana Coignard, a seventeen-year-old woman with bipolar disorder and depression, walked into the police department in Longwood, Texas, with "I have a gun" written on her hand. She also had a knife in her waistband. Officer Glenn Derr approached her, read her message, and quickly restrained her. He then let her go, restrained her on the floor, then let her go again as two other officers entered the scene.
On the surveillance video that the department released, you can see the moment in which Coignard decides to die. She raises her knife and charged at Derr, who shoots, as does one of the other officers. The third officer deploys a TASER, but by then it was too late. She lies on the floor for a few minutes until emergency medical services arrive.
What lessons do we draw this death? I write:
When police misread the circumstances of encounter with an individual with mental health crisis, the possibility for violence rapidly escalates. The only solution is for law enforcement to try to stabilize every encounter, to the extent possible, as if it involved psychiatric disability.
I further suggest that just as police are likely to be over-aggressive when confronting black men, here they were under-aggressive, and that proved just as dangerous. Consistent stabilization tactics must be applied in all circumstances, rather than only when police are fully aware of a mental health crisis. The good news is that many law enforcement officers around the country are practicing just this. The bad news is that too many people are still dying.

I have various searches that deliver articles to me about the intersections of disability and policing. Every day, I read about deaths, trials, exoneration, commitments, and new ideas for training. Here's just a partial skimming of yesterday's news

Phillipsburg, New Jersey - Police shooting of man with a knife in mental health crisis ruled justified.
According to Burke, someone from Read's mental health provider, Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, had called 911 after Read's landlord reported receiving a threatening letter with photos. Burke did not immediately have information on the contents of the letter.
Officials said that when police arrived at the home Read refused to leave his first floor apartment and was holding a knife.
"Police were able to enter the home and confront the individual. Mr. Read refused to comply with police orders to drop the knife, advanced at the officers and was subsequently shot,"officials said in a press release today.
My question - why enter the home? Was Read actually threatening anyone from inside his apartment? Why not invest the scene with patience, rather than charging in. Once the officers had entered the home, Read's death was guaranteed.

No charges for Michigan police who shot Aura Rosser, a woman holding a knife and in mental heath crisis.
Rosser lived with her boyfriend, Victor Stephens. The night of her death, Stephens called 911 and asked police to “come and get her," according to a memo released by the prosecutor's office. He said he had locked himself in a room and that “she jumped on [him].” He also said he might need an ambulance for his hand.
When Ried and his partner Mark Raab arrived at Stephens’ home, they heard a woman say she had a knife and a man respond, “What are [you] gonna do, stab me?” according to the memo. They then heard a loud thump and entered the home through the front door to find Rosser and Stephens struggling. Rosser was attempting to attack Stephens with a knife while he fended her off, the document states.
When officers ordered her to drop the weapon, she turned on them and advanced, they said, with “her eyes wide open with what appeared to be a blank stare.” Raab used a Taser on Rosser at the same time Ried fatally shot her once in the chest.
“The fact that Officer Raab chose to draw his Taser does not make Officer Ried’s decision to draw his sidearm a criminal act,” the memo states. “The law of self-defense does not require that the least harmful means be employed before a more harmful level of force may be lawfully used.”
This is a more difficult situation, strategically, as Rosser clearly was threatening Stephens at the time, forcing an intervention by police. I don't know enough about the timing and layout to know whether the TASER could have been used first before firing. If I hadn't read hundreds of these kinds of reports, I'd assume the officers had no choice. But I have read hundreds of these reports, and too often the officers place or keep themselves in proximity to the victim, allowing them to threaten the officers and thus drawing fire.

Mental health is cited explicitly in only one of these dozen officer-involved shootings in midstate Pennsylvania counties, but reading through some, I have my suspicions that others also involved psychiatric disabilities. The one is important, though:
March 14, 2012: Samuel Snyder, 57, was fatally shot by police at the end of a 14-hour stand-off that began when state troopers appeared at his North Annville Township home to involuntarily commit him for mental health treatment. Police said one officer was wounded and that Snyder fired 40 to 60 bullets during the standoff.
So, Snyder had a gun and held the officers at bay for fourteen hours. It's hard to argue with this one on an immediate tactical level. Instead, we'd have to look at the failings of our mental health systems that let matters escalate to this level.

Last November, a Shelby Township man suspected of psychiatric disability barricaded himself inside his house and held police at bay for over two hours. He fired three shots, but was taken peacefully into custody. Now:
A mental evaluation has been ordered for a 46-year-old Shelby Township man accused of holding police at bay in his home for more than two hours last November.

Bobby Jo Grimes will undergo an evaluation to determine whether he is fit to face charges of attempted murder, felon in possession of a firearm, felony firearm and resisting arrest for the Nov. 11 incident near Ryan and Auburn roads. The exam was approved last week by Judge Douglas Shepherd of 41A District Court in Shelby Township.
That's one day's news.

Lately, I've been told that the intersection of policing and disability is a niche issue, not a big societal concern. I've had trouble getting traction for some of my stories and pitches as a result.

It's not, though. The niche is us. The niche is humanity. We're all in it, and if not today, then tomorrow, or the next one, as our bodies age and change, as family members are diagnosed, as we come to understand the limitations our conception of normal.

Tomorrow, there's going to be more news, and whether it makes the news or not, soon another death.