Once again, a community sits in grief. Once again our neighbors writhe in inconsolable pain. Once again family members and friends are left with more questions than answers in the wake of police violence.
Not only must a community mourn, but also it must ask why on earth has justice been denied in the wake of an insufferable loss? Is it a crime to be young and black and walking down the street in America? Is it a crime to be young and black and mentally ill?
These are the questions that surely plague the family of 25-year-old Ezell Ford after Tuesday’s decision that the two policemen that stopped, shot and killed their son will face no charges in his death. The autopsy showed that he was shot three times ― in the back, in the side and in the arm. He was unarmed.
Over the objections of LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck, in June of 2015 a civilian oversight panel unanimously found that one of the officers was at fault and acted outside of police policy in stopping Mr. Ford, scuffling with him, and in drawing their weapon. The panel unanimously recommended that administrative disciplinary actions be taken due to this violation of police guidelines concerning tactics, drawing of a service weapon, non-lethal use of force and in the lethal use of force. However, Jackie Lacey’s District Attorney’s office has now concluded in a 28-page report that Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas were in fear for their lives and acted lawfully when they shot Ezell Ford on August 11, 2014.
Tuesday’s conclusions tragically trigger an existential question that trouble the core of far too many black, brown and poor communities. That question is, does my life matter? In particular, does it matter to one of the largest, deadliest, well-funded police departments per capita in America?
While both the numbers and the lived reality of communities across the country show that our law enforcement officers are grossly ill equipped to police the mentally ill, cities like Los Angeles did seek to expand its System-Wide Mental Assessment Response Teams (SMART) in December 2015, with similar fledgling efforts in the LA Sheriff’s Department, and in the Burbank, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Pasadena police departments. Though in most cases these units are fledgling and inadequate, they are a step in the right direction.
However a critical question remains. How often does racial profiling and implicit bias, as in the case of Ezell Ford, violate our citizens’ civil rights and actually create a mental health crisis for the mentally ill that ultimately leaves them dead?
A 2015 report from the Ruderman Foundation showed that some 50 percent of the people who were killed by the police between 2013 and 2015 were mentally ill. We also know from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that on average over 50 percent of the men and women in state, local, and federal prison are mental ill.
In my own context of Southern California, we saw this played out in the May 2015 shooting of Branden Glenn in Venice, CA. We saw it again in the July 2016 shooting of Alfred Olongo in El Cajon California, in the September 2016 killing JR Thomas in the Fall of 2016 in Pasadena, and we continue to see it in a growing number of body bags and hashtags. Indeed is seems that to be mentally ill is to flirt with death, but to be black and mentally ill is to have signed your own death certificate in the eyes of too many of our police officers.
Social psychologists like Dr. John Powell at UC Berkeley, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt at Stanford University and Dr. Joshua Gorrell at the University of Colorado have taught us a lot the racial prejudices and implicit biases that reek havoc in our subconscious whether we intend to or not. Without proper training, simply add stress, a mental health episode, a badge, and a gun to this equation and it is a powder keg ready to explode. Why on earth would we think that our officers, whom many purport to have the most stressful profession on the planet, would somehow be immune?
So now another community must mourn not only the loss of a loved one, but the loss of a sense of basic fairness and justice as well. And we should all mourn with them even as we seek justice with them.
Every citizen in America should mourn the fact that the color of your skin or the state of your mental health almost guarantees that you will end up facing arrest, incarceration or death. Being an man or woman of color who is mentally ill should never determine your destiny in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Like Branden Glenn, Alfred Olongo and JR Thomas, Ezell Ford is so much more than a trending hashtag on Facebook or Twitter. The men and the women who have died at the hands of those charged to protect them are more than even just the rallying cry for a movement of justice, though justice is surely what we will seek. Like so many others, the life of Ezell Ford matters because he was a child of God made in the image of God.
And for those who are left behind to mourn and to pursue justice, let us affirm that being black and mentally ill is not a crime. Walking down the street in your own neighborhood is not a crime. So let us engage in the sacred work of resistance to affirm that every Ezell Ford in our communities will be treated with dignity, with honor, and with respect. In doing so, we not only affirm the God given worth of the mentally ill, but we restore our own as well.