ALL LIVES MUST BE HANDLED WITH CARE AND DIGNITY!
By now, many of you have probably seen CNN clips or read about the needless and shameful killing of a young high school senior in Brunswick County whose family called police for help to get him into a service setting. The details of this event are disturbing, and we do not like to share things in a voyeuristic manner. But at close range, with two officers holding the young man down, young Keith Vidal was shot in the chest in the hallway of his house with family all around. A link to a press conference held with the family in the Brunswick County court house just after the event is at the bottom of this letter. The mother is particularly compelling in her statements.
It is time that advocates publicly question the premises behind how communities respond to citizens who happen to have symptoms of mental illness, who may be intoxicated, or who may have developmental differences that make them behave differently. Their conditions are not of themselves criminal activities. By default, we rely on the police, yet there are other more practical, more reasonable, and far more dignified ways to respond to persons and their families when they need a specialized response. Yet we continue to discriminate against some citizens when we treat them so differently because they have a mental illness. If an officer shot any other person in the chest as happened here, he would be charged and tried for the unwarranted killing of a citizen.
Rarely do people in a mental health crisis have a weapon in hand. The fact is that far more individuals who have mental illness are killed by gunfire each year in our country—often by well-intended but ill-prepared police officers—than actually do any killing. We don’t discount the terror and anguish of the events where there have been the multiple deaths of adults or children—yet we never hear a community outcry when individuals are wrongfully killed because they were having symptoms of mental illness.
While we regard them as officers of public safety, it remains that there is too often the obvious potential of the abuse of power. And such abuse clearly does happen. Besides all the sad stories we’ve read of through the years in our papers, this writer has experienced having her own son—then a scrawny eighteen year old—beaten by six police officers in a parking lot outside of a zoo because he was psychotic. His arm was broken in two places, he was shot with a tazer twice, and kicked enough that he bled from his kidney and went into shock. He was hospitalized for two weeks The terrifying event had a tremendous and traumatic impact on his short life (he took his life later).
There are other alternatives, such as mobile crisis teams, trained crisis engagement specialists, and even the use of crisis responders using ambulance—something some other states do. If citizens call the police about a mental health crisis, the police would call the responders to be the direct interveners. There are ways that police can serve—but as secondary assistance in the case that a person is actually wielding a dangerous weapon or only as needed after a crisis engagement specialist has evaluated the situation or if someone has weapon in hand, threatening to take life.
The bottom line is that all lives are precious, and it is society’s responsibility to protect all citizens—even if they have a disability or a troubled mental status. We must ensure that all people are safe, regrettably even from officers who are supposed to protect our safety. Be assured that while there may be just a few officers who would make the tragic judgment and kill an innocent person, people who become law enforcers are different in makeup and in training from those who are prepared to help people in emotional or mental distress.
NC CANSO has begun communications with legislators and with the Crisis Solutions Coalition recommending policy changes that ensure that trained crisis engagement specialists and appropriately prepared mobile crisis teams are the first interveners in crisis cases, and not police officers. We are suggesting that police departments should contact the mobile crisis team or the specialist on call and meet the specialist at the site of the disturbance—while serving only as back-up.
We hope you will advocate with us regarding this issues. We will soon share an update with some recommendations re: whom to address your advocacy to.
Thank you so much for taking time on this issue.