Mentally Ill And Black: The Danger of Police
Image from an article talking about the importance of mental health trainings for police.
Research and data have well established that people of color are disproportionately overrepresented within the United States criminal legal system. Additionally, if an individual also has a mental illness, especially an undiagnosed one, their vulnerability to escalated severe police response is also increased. As such, people of color with mental illness are uniquely endangered by the color of their skin and their disability.
Image from an article talking about “The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality”
People of color are already at increased peril of involvement with the criminal legal system due to the color of their skin. For example, the criminalization of black individuals through the historical process and the modern media system has resulted in the general perception that Black people are dangerous criminals. Additionally, the warrior mentality, which encourages officers to adopt the same mentality and attitude— to survive no matter what —as soldiers in a life-threatening struggle, has resulted in officers being hypervigilant and prioritizing their safety. The perception of black people’s “innate” criminality and law enforcements’ hypervigilance has triggered severe and deadly interactions between police officers and citizens. Cases of young black men dying under police action, like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Tamir Rice, have led many to criticize police, claiming they are overtly brutal, abusing their power, and discriminating against people of color.
Image of Black Lives Matters protesters kneeling for nine minutes in remembrance of George Floyd.
Similarly, mental illness exacerbates the risk black communities will face more severe repercussions from the criminal legal system and its actors. Some sources argue that over a ⅓ or ½ of all police shootings involve a mentally ill individual. Additionally, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, they found that people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during police encounters. Many scholars theorize this increased risk comes from an ableist expectation of compliance. Mentally ill individuals may not comply or may comply in an unexpected way, resulting in officers preemptively using force.
Image of protesters at a Brooklyn rally over police violence against the mentally ill. This rally was organized in response to the police killing of James Owen after they were called to his home for having a mental breakdown.
Ultimately, mental illness intertwined with blackness puts an individual at double risk of serious police response. The perception of black people as dangerous criminals already causes police to resort more quickly to force. Mental illnesses further this narrative while worsening the public perception of black people. As Talila A. Lewis, a community lawyer at Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD), explained the U.S. government uses “constructed ideas about disability, delinquency and dependency, intertwined with constructed ideas about race to classify and criminalize people.” Additionally, due to social and economic disadvantages, black people are more likely than their white counterparts to have a higher risk of chronic illness, like mental illnesses. They also are less likely to receive treatment or formal diagnoses for their illnesses or disabilities, leading to further complications and possible worsening of their symptoms. Although we may be unsure how severe the frequency at which mental illness and race affect police interactions, there should still be concern surrounding instances with these circumstances.
Image of a protest against police brutality
Accordingly, many advocates and scholars are calling for policing and public policy changes. For example, many are calling for police to have more training that features cultural awareness, de-escalation, and how to handle individuals with mental illness. Additionally, more funds should be allocated toward supporting systems that help individuals with mental illnesses. Finally, there should be a tracking system designed to record the potential role mental illness may play in police encounters.