In theory, police departments maintain order, ensure safety and prevent criminal activities within communities. In practice, police officers are authorized to determine who receives certain resources and opportunities. Unfortunately for Black people, the police may prevent access to mental health resources and deny the opportunity to live another day.
The potential consequences of police intervention in mental health crises are exemplified by the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie. Osagie had been hospitalized at least six times in his life to receive treatment for his multiple mental health conditions. Tragically, Osagie was fatally shot in March by local police after Osagie’s family called for a wellness check. According to the police, Osagie was armed, uncooperative and unaffected by their initial use of force. Last month, Osagie’s family announced their intent to sue the State College Police Department saying, “The mental health processes in place failed our son.”
Osagie’s death is far from an isolated event; Anthony Hill, Deborah Danner, Pamela Turner Isaiah Lewis, and Miles Hall were all killed by police while they were experiencing a mental health crisis. In the United States, studies have found that up to half of all people killed by police had registered disabilities including mental illnesses. Additionally, individuals living with an untreated mental condition are up to 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by police. Wellness checks resulting in violent deaths, coupled with infinite incidents of police brutality against Black communities, deepen and legitimize the fears Black people feel towards the police. Ultimately, the intersection of race and mental illness places young black men living with a mental illness in the most at-risk category for police shootings.
Changes to current mental health crisis protocol must be made at a national level to protect vulnerable Black boys and men from inhumane treatment by police officers. Both domestic and international efforts are being made in places like Oregon and Sweden to eliminate police violence in mental health crisis responses. These efforts center on sending mental health experts instead of “shoot first, ask questions later” police officers to handle non-criminal emergencies. Studies show that up to 78% of police forces are not trained to handle mental health calls. Accordingly, it is impractical to assign untrained or inadequately trained police officers to manage mental health-related situations. A quick internet search reveals countless examples that police are fully capable of exercising patience and restraint with not only individuals experiencing a mental crisis, but with violent, unpredictable criminals such as mass shooters. Although these efforts are a step in the right direction, Black boys and men will remain susceptible to police violence for as long as systemic racism remains intact.
Article Written by: Priscilla María, Mental Health Advocate and Writer