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A Tribute to Tanisha Anderson: African-American, Schizophrenic and Lost on the Streets

02/20/2015 01:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
Gaetan Charbonneau via Getty Images

When Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year old African-American woman who had been reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, died at the hands of the Cleveland Police Department this past November, she became not only one in a long line of African-American victims of alleged police brutality, she also became the latest person of color with a mental illness to be killed by law enforcement.

Miriam Carey, Ezell Ford and Eleanor Bumpurs, among others, were all shot dead by law enforcement over the years. Sadly, the victims in these cases have been mostly forgotten, primarily because they suffered from mental illness.

Carey, an African-American woman who was diagnosed with post-partum depression and psychosis, led the Secret Service and Capitol Police on an October 2013 chase in Washington, D.C., because she was under the delusion that she was being monitored by President Obama and the federal government.

She was shot dead by law enforcement with her baby in the car. While political leaders on the left and the right applauded the acts of the Secret Service and Capitol Police, I was not so sanguine.

As I wrote at the time, "There has got to be a better way for police and Secret Service to handle unarmed, psychotic people, short of killing them."

I added, "Even if shooting out tires does not always work, there must be some other procedure for disabling a car. Couldn't the police have stalled Carey's vehicle by ramming it? Couldn't they have fired warning shots in the air? Couldn't they have shot Carey in the leg with a Taser?"

I asked a similar question last year after Ezell Ford, an African-American man who had reportedly been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was shot dead by the LAPD on the streets of South L.A.

While the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner understandably received a good deal of attention, Ezell Ford's death did not. Some of that may have been due to the improved community outreach of the LAPD in the two decades since the Rodney King beating, but the relative neglect in publicity surrounding Ford's case was also likely due to the fact that he was mentally ill.

Similarly, the death of Tanisha Anderson has received less attention than that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African-American boy, who was playing with a toy gun when he was killed by Cleveland police last year.

All of these incidents deserve attention so that policies can be implemented to prevent future tragedies.

But I would argue that the case of Tanisha Anderson deserves extra scrutiny because, unlike some of the victims in the past, Anderson was unarmed, was not under the suspicion of committing a crime and was almost assuredly harmless.

According to Cleveland.com, Tanisha Anderson's family had called police to report that she was being "unruly, but non-violent," during a psychotic episode.

I understand this very well, as my psychiatrist was going to call the police to have them pick me up when I was psychotic and diagnosed with schizophrenia in January 1999. Like Tanisha Anderson, I was not violent.

But the Cleveland police claim that Anderson kicked them and struggled with them on the way to the car. She was going to be taken to a medical center for treatment.

Members of Anderson's family, who witnessed her death, have said that she panicked when she was confined in the back seat of the police cruiser. She bolted out of the back seat before she was slammed on the pavement and killed.

Even if Tanisha Anderson did struggle with and kick the police, law enforcement has to do a much better job of training officers to handle people in the midst of psychosis.

Social workers should accompany cops in those situations, as they reportedly do now in L.A., although I must point out that Ezell Ford was known to be mentally ill, and he was still killed by the LAPD.

In Ezell Ford's case, the police alleged that he brandished a knife.

The same thing was said of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old African-American woman with a history of emotional problems. Bumpurs, who was killed at her Bronx apartment in October 1984, may not have had an official diagnosis like Tanisha Anderson, but she too was reported to be psychotic, which simply means divorced from reality.

A specially trained police unit went to her apartment to evict her for being behind in the rent. She was shot twice by an officer, who was acquitted in state court.

Rudy Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, did not bring federal charges.

Then, as now in the Tanisha Anderson case, many called for an independent prosecutor, although at that time it was to no avail.

By contrast, an independent prosecutor, Charles Hynes, who later became the Brooklyn District Attorney, was brought in to prosecute the Howard Beach case a few years after Eleanor Bumpurs was killed.

By then, there had been a spate of hate crimes in New York. Civil rights activists had built momentum for the cause. And perhaps, most tellingly, the victims in the Howard Beach case, Michael Griffith and Cedric Sandiford, two black men, were not mentally ill.

They were two men of color who wandered into the wrong neighborhood, a primarily white enclave in Queens, at the wrong time and were attacked by a gang of white kids.

Tanisha Anderson was in her own neighborhood and outside of her own home when she was thrown onto the pavement in a "take-down" move by the Cleveland police. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's office ruled her death a homicide and determined that it was "a sudden death associated with physical restraint in a prone position."

According to Cleveland.com, the Justice Department recently issued a 58-page report, which found, not surprisingly, that Cleveland police officers have not been properly trained in how to handle people with mental illness and how to use "de-escalation techniques." The report also found that officers have used "cruel and excessive force against the mentally and medically ill."
How many more tragedies like this do we have to have before we realize that people of color and people with mental illness should be treated humanely on the streets!

Specially trained police units may not be enough. After all, Eleanor Bumpurs, whose name was remembered by the Greek chorus in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, was killed by officers in a specially trained unit. And that was 31 years ago!

Cameras monitoring the police, social workers on the scene, and specially trained police units can and should help.

But what we really need is humanity and insight into a very complicated situation.

When police officers encounter a person who is known to be mentally ill, the officers have got to keep in mind that psychotic people are scared, terrified that they are going to be harmed.
That fear is justified because, as studies show, those with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime.

My advice to officers is to allow the social worker on the scene to talk to, reason with and comfort the mentally ill person, particularly if that person is unarmed.

Tanisha Anderson, who was unarmed and who also reportedly had a heart condition, clearly did not get such reassurance when she was in the police cruiser. Instead, she got slammed on the pavement, while an officer rammed his knee against her back.

Now, she is gone, another lost soul in our country's failure to deal humanely not only with people of color but also with those diagnosed with severe mental illness.