Why defunding the police means investing in mental health

Police are often terrible at dealing with mental illness — leading many to rethink how "policing" might work

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 11, 2020 2:58PM (EDT)

Riot police blocking the entrance to I-195 during the demonstration (Adam DelGiudice/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Riot police blocking the entrance to I-195 during the demonstration (Adam DelGiudice/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Body camera footage from two of the Minneapolis police officers who arrested George Floyd reveals that Floyd — who was killed by one of those cops' colleagues, Derek Chauvin — pleaded with law enforcement officers to explain that he has mental health issues.

The footage, which was retrieved from body cameras worn by former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Keung and leaked to the Daily Mail, is striking for the number of times that Floyd and his companions attempt to calm the officers by bringing up Floyd's mental health. It shows Floyd explaining to the officer that he had been shot before, implying that he may suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from previous interactions with law enforcement; he also mentions that his mother recently passed away, indicating possible mental health issues related to stress and grief; his ex-girlfriend, when asked by Lane why Floyd is being "squirrelly," gesticulates that Floyd has mental health problems because of "a thing going on about the police"; and Floyd himself tells the officers that he has "claustrophobia" and "anxiety."

Despite the obvious plausible signs that Floyd may have suffered from mental illnesses, and even though he was being accused of a non-violent offense (he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby grocery store), Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd died soon thereafter.

Floyd's horrific and unjust death has prompted a national re-evaluation of the function and nature of the US police force, including calls to defund the police. Many activists have rightly pointed out that a vast number of calls to police are mental health calls, which police are generally not well-trained to handle (as is evident in Chauvin's case). According to the National Library of Medicine from the National Institutes of Health, an estimated "six to 10 percent of all police contacts with the public in the U.S. involve persons with serious mental illnesses." The reported added that the evidence regarding whether mental illnesses increase the likelihood of arrest is "equivocal."

"I believe [police] training and their protocol should include asking... if they have any health conditions that we need to know about," Dr. Jameca Woody-Cooper, a psychologist in St. Louis, told Salon, pointing out that there are non-psychological health conditions like epilepsy that could influence a citizen's encounter with police officers. "Then he volunteered that information — about his prior history with police, and being shot, and one thing that he mentioned was trauma. Then I think his friends said that as well, that he'd been shot before. Then he told them he was afraid. Then he said he was claustrophobic. Then he said he has anxiety, as he's crying."

"You don't have to be a trained mental health professional to know that he's volunteering his health information and they ignored each and every piece of it," Woody-Cooper added. 

Dr. David Reiss, a professor at Yale Child Study Center, was troubled that the officers reacted with such aggression toward Floyd even though he and the other people in his car clearly communicated that he had mental health problems.

"It's really the officer's — or whoever is approaching the person — responsibility to identify the situation they're dealing with. And the person who is in it, the only thing they can do is communicate," Reiss explained. "This is the best they can do. 'This is what I'm experiencing, or this is what I'm dealing with. Help me beyond that.' It's really up to the responding person to do something. There's not much else the person could do other than to inform, 'I have an issue, help me with this.' And sometimes they're not capable of doing that, but there's not much else they can really do."

As Woody-Cooper explained to Salon, this is where the issue of discrimination against people with mental illnesses intersects with racism.

"If you're a black person in America, you don't have the luxury of saying that you have a mental issue that would preclude you from reacting a certain way," Woody-Cooper pointed out. "That's a luxury that's not afforded to black people in America."

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) and an African-American Studies and Psychology Professor at Yale University, elaborated on the officers' various missed chances to recognize Floyd's vulnerable state and interact with him in a way that would have been beneficial to all parties. Like Woody-Cooper and Reiss, Goff pointed to how Floyd attempted to communicate that he had mental health issues in order to protect himself. Goff added that this goes a long way toward explaining why America needs to have mental health professionals in situations like this, as well as law enforcement officers, so that they can people with psychological conditions can be treated fairly.

"It's not just Mr. Floyd who indicated that he is claustrophobic, he's been shot before, he's exhibiting symptoms of trauma," Goff told Salon. "His ex-partner is also there saying that he's got mental health issues, and in those situations, there's an opportunity without endangering the officers to de-escalate."

As any social worker or ER nurse can attest, there are different protocols for dealing with deliberate violent criminality and those suffering from mental illness. Yet most police, at least as they exist today, seem to flatten the distinction. 

As Goff pointed out, an officer "pointed a gun as soon as [Floyd] opens the door" — a vast and unwarranted provocation for someone accused of a minor petty crime. "There is nothing in the video that I saw that would justify that to have escalated."

Goff said that proning Floyd was the wrong move for someone who is reporting trauma and difficulty breathing, that it "is not something that you do for someone who is going to be hyperventilating. All of those things would be a violation if this person was considered to be concerning being dangerous or concerning being violent in a mental health facility. And that's part of the reason why it's important that, when you have someone who is presenting with mental health symptoms, you have someone who is trained to deal with someone presenting a mental health symptoms present."

Activists' calls to defund the police have often gone hand-in-hand with calls to reallocate policing funds to mental health and social services. Indeed, the experts Salon spoke with said it would be a social boon to have mental health professionals, social workers or others from non-law enforcement backgrounds present in handling certain criminal situations.

"A lot of departments, if they get a call and they know it's going to be a mental health issue, they'll send a social worker or a mental health professional with the team as part of the police team to help with that," Reiss explained. "Now obviously you can't do that if it's something that just happens suddenly, but the officers should be trained and should use that training to know when to de-escalate as opposed when they should assume it's going to be a violent, hostile situation."

Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical, forensic and police psychologist based in Palm Beach County, Florida, disagrees, arguing that it would not be a good idea to have mental health professionals accompany every police call.

"I think it would be a misuse of resources to insist that a mental health practitioner accompany of police officers to every call, not to mention the liability issue, because many of these calls can turn extremely dangerous . . . most mental health professionals are the ones that I know are not going to just walk into a scene without knowing what the consequences might be," Miller told Salon.

The incident with Floyd is hardly the first time the nature of police interaction with the mentally ill has been thrust into the public eye. Social justice advocates have drawn attention to the case of Matthew Rushin, an African American autistic man who is serving a 50-year prison sentence (a judge ordered that he had to serve 10 of them) for severely wounding a 72-year-old man in an automobile accident. Although no one disputes Rushin's guilt, mental health advocates have argued that he was pressured into signing a plea deal he does not understand because of his autism, attention deficit disorder and traumatic brain injury, and that his sentence was out of proportion to his offense.

There is also the case of Neli Latson, a Virginian special-education student who is also black and on the autism spectrum, who was accused of "suspicious" activity while sitting outside of a library (he did not have a gun, as the anonymous caller claimed). After the officer grabbed him several times during their interaction, Latson lashed out and injured the officer, resulting in a jail sentence where he was often held in solitary confinement for over 100 days. At one point Latson was Tasered and strapped to a restraint chair.

"People equate mental illness with violence," Reiss told Salon when asked about how biases against mentally ill individuals may have factored into what happened with Floyd. "The reality is that people with mental illnesses are much, much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrator. Yes, some of the violence is because of mental illness, but that's a small percentage. Yet we tend to act as if that's inherent to mental illness when the reverse is true."

Woody-Cooper opened up about how she felt watching the latest Floyd footage as an African-American mother who helps mentally ill people.

"As a mental health professional, just watching that was heartbreaking," Woody-Cooper explained. "I'm a parent. I have two sons, African American sons that are teenagers, and watching this was traumatic for me. So I can only imagine what it's going to be for the masses." Her conclusion was the same one reached by many people: "It tells me as an African American person in this country that truly my life doesn't matter."

Goff, by contrast, firmly contextualized Floyd's mistreatment in terms of racism.

"One of the prejudices that folks have against African Americans is it's harder to see when they are in mental distress, Instead they get upgraded as angry, violent, scary, but not that there is something going on inside of them, which is painful," Goff explained. "Our pain is reinterpreted as a danger to other people."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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