Acts of police brutality against black men have been front page news for several years, sparking the successful activist movement, #BlackLivesMatter. Yet, African Americans are not the only victims of unprovoked violence at the hands of so-called peace officers. An even bigger crisis involves police brutality against the mentally disabled.
According to research released by the Ruderman Family Foundation, nearly one half of the people killed by police officers in United States suffered from some form of mental disability. In fact, if a person is mentally ill, they are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police. “Police have become the default responders to mental health calls,” note the report’s authors after analyzing data compiled from 2012-15. They conclude that a person with a mental disability is “presumed dangerous to themselves and others.”
It’s a presumption that all too often leads to tragic consequences.
The Case of Martin Gomez
Martin Gomez, shot to death at his home in Pharr, Texas on the morning of December 20, 2016, is one such case. The local news claims that the 46-year-old man allegedly “lunged” and “headed for” the two police officers who arrived at the scene, holding knives in both hands. Two policemen opened fire, shooting Gomez multiple times. He died an hour later after medics rushed him to a local hospital for treatment.
What the news stories fail to report is that the Pharr Police Department knew that Gomez was mentally ill. According to the family, police had been out to the house on several occasions over a 20 year period to take Gomez to the hospital for treatment stemming from his psychiatric condition. On the morning he was fatally shot, eyewitnesses report that Gomez was not aggressive toward the officers who arrived on the scene. In fact, the “weapon” he was holding was a butter knife.
Whether the officers who shot Gomez were personally aware of his mental illness is not known at this time. What is clear, however, is that the officers failed to exercise the proper protocol for dealing with a mentally ill person. They proceeded without waiting for a specialized police unit to arrive at the scene, and they failed to use their taser guns before shooting Gomez. They turned what could easily have been a nonviolent resolution into a deadly case of police brutality.
The Scope of the Problem
The Texas Tribune reports 37 similar cases over a six year period in which police shot to kill even when they knew beforehand that the person was mentally ill. One such case occurred in North Austin, when 31-year-old Cassandra Bolin’s boyfriend called the police with a concern for her well-being. The moment police arrived, the despondent Bolin threatened to kill herself and, after a long stand off, ultimately pointed the gun at the officers, who shot and killed her.
Sometimes, the individual with a mental disability isn’t even armed. Such was the case with Brian Clauch, a double amputee and paranoid schizophrenic who refused to show his hands and cornered an officer that had been called to the scene when Clauch’s caregiver reported a domestic disturbance. The officer’s partner saw the flash of a shiny object in Clauch’s hand and shot the man, only later realizing that the object was a ballpoint pen.
Situations where police knew to expect mental illness before arriving at the scene constitute a fraction of the 656 police shootings that the Tribune studied over the same six year period. But if Ruderman Family Foundation report is correct, and one half of all the victims of police shootings are mentally ill, police officers are either woefully untrained in dealing with mental illness or all too willing to overlook the signs in the heat of the moment.
“When you’re working with mental health patients, you have to be trained in a particular way,” notes GOM Law Firm Attorney Lino Ochoa. “You can’t just shoot them.”
Properly trained officers know to use appropriate, not deadly, force. They are also acutely aware that while mental disability shapes antisocial behaviors, including aggression, the behavior comes with limited comprehension and, in many cases, no conscious intent to cause harm.
When Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome, got into an altercation with three Maryland sheriffs who tried to remove him from a movie theater, they restrained him in a choke hold, causing his death by asphyxiation. Police brutality might have been more justified in another set of circumstances. But Saylor, whose emotional and intellectual capability were limited, had no conception that he needed to stop struggling in order to save himself. He would still be alive today had the officers in question backed off their use of excessive force and called his mother instead.
The Coming Storm?
Police brutality against mentally ill Americans became all but inevitable after President Ronald Reagan shut down mental health institutions across the country in the 1980s, releasing tens of thousands of patients who had nowhere to live but the streets. This policy helped to shape the current stigma against both mental illness and the homeless. Moreover, the evolution of managed healthcare led to a system that routinely provided inadequate coverage for psychiatric conditions even when individuals could afford healthcare policies.
When President Barack Obama came to office, he was determined to do something about the mental health crisis. The Affordable Care Act mandates that psychiatric disorders are treated the same way as illnesses like diabetes and cancer, removing annual and lifetime caps on coverage and preexisting conditions. This has been a boon both for America’s health care system as a whole and, more importantly, for mentally ill patients, who qualify for treatment even when they have a history of changing jobs.
Now, President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to overturn the ACA in its entirety, including the pre-existing condition provision. He has also vowed to protect police from what he believes to be an unfair bias against them.
A society where there are potentially fewer restraints on police behavior and more untreated individuals with psychiatric disorders is bound to lead to more violent altercations and acts of police brutality. At GOM Law, that concerns us. No American, particularly not an American suffering from a disability, should be the victim of police brutality leading to injury or death. If you or your mentally ill loved one has been a victim of police brutality, please contact one of the personal injury attorneys at GOM Law. We will be able to provide you with a free consultation to make you aware of your rights and to guide you through the legal process.