Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cult of Compliance: The Death of Anthony Hill

"The [naked] man who appeared mentally ill ran at the officer and ignored demands to stop before the officer shot him twice."

Hill and his parents. Used by permission
of the picture's owner.
Yesterday, in DeKalb, GA, a police officer responded to a call about a naked, unarmed, man at an

apartment complex. He was clearly in a mental health crisis. He ran at the officer and the officer killed him.

His name was Anthony Hill. Here's more detail about his life and death. He was an Air Force veteran, a musician, and a recent critic of police violence. He also had bipolar disorder.

Readers of this blog know the story all too well, but there are points worth emphasizing. Each death operates within the general trend of the cult of compliance and the war on the unpredictable, but each death is a tragedy in its own specific details.

Hall was naked, so there's no question whether or not he was armed. Instead, we have an officer, in admittedly a split-second situation, ordering a naked man to stop, then firing when he didn't. This is another case in which, as I wrote about for Kajieme Powell and other deaths, the police officer is demanding that the disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot.

There are three key takeaways that I'd like to offer this morning. 

1. Failure to obey commands while in mental health crisis is not, by itself, a capital crime.
2. Failure to obey commands for anyone is not, by itself, a capital crime.
3. When assessing this incident, we need to ask why the officer ended up in this position both tactically and strategically.

For one and two, we have to ask officers to make split-second evaluations of risk. Hall didn't have a weapon, but was he big? Was he charging or running away? Was he screaming? At what point does any risk of bodily harm justify the use of deadly force? These are questions I can't answer in the specific case, but I do believe that police generally are too quick to use lethal force. In many ways, this is a learned response to policing a heavily armed society, but Hall was naked, so it's not like he was reaching for his belt. 

Still, we don't fix this problem just by giving individual officers better training. Cedric Alexander, director of the county public safety department, said this:
DeKalb officers receive some training in dealing with the mentally ill while in the academy before they join the force, Alexander said, but on Monday he said perhaps the training needed to be bolstered.
“That is becoming more and more apparent,” he said.
More individualized training for officers is an unmitigated good. It is, however, also a limited solution. As with the death of Kristiana Coignard and Charley Robinet, along with so many others, we have to expand our lens and not look only at the moment of death.

What I want to know is why, in a situation that so clearly involved mental health issues - I mean, a naked man crawling around acting erratically is a mental health call - this officer ended up in the position where he killed Hall. Where is the crisis intervention team? Where are the mental health professionals? What teamwork has already been put in place between law enforcement and mental health?

De-escalation and crisis training are good. They might have kept Hill alive. I hold the officer responsible for shooting an unarmed naked man. But I want to know what the whole department, the whole state, is doing to prevent such deaths. The solutions have to be structural.

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