Race, Mental Illness And Police Collide In El Cajon, California

09/28/2016 11:57 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2016
Earnie Grafton / Reuters

We still don’t know his name, the name of the African-American man, who was shot dead by the police yesterday, Sept. 27, in El Cajon, about 15 miles from San Diego.

He might be Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

And what makes him seem invisible is not just that he was African-American but that he was also, according to his sister and friends, someone with mental illness.

When I read about this tragedy yesterday, I thought not only of all the African-Americans who have been killed by law enforcement, I thought of all the African-Americans and others with mental illness who have met tragic ends.

The first case that came to mind was that of Eleanor Bumpurs, an African-American woman, who was shot dead by police in her Bronx apartment in 1984.

She was said to have been holding a meat cleaver or a large kitchen knife.

A special unit of the NYPD, supposedly trained for situations involving people with emotional problems, had been summoned.

Tragically, Bumpurs, who was 66 years old, was killed, one of the first in a long line of African-Americans, who died at the hands of law enforcement or gangs of white punks in New York in the 1980s.

What made the case of Bumpurs different was that she also suffered from mental illness, perhaps a psychotic disorder, according to reports of the day. Given her psychiatric state, she likely did not understand what the police were doing in her Bronx apartment, where she owed several months rent.

It is also true, as I have written numerous times over the years, that the vast majority of police officers, to this day, do not understand how to deal with people who suffer from mental illness.

Yesterday, Sept. 27, the aforementioned Invisible Man, an African-American, thought to be about 30 years old, was shot dead in El Cajon.

At press time, the African-American man had not been identified, but there are reports that the police were aware that the victim was behaving “erratically,” that he ran through traffic and that he suffered from mental illness.

While witnesses have indicated that the man was unarmed, the El Cajon police claim that he raised his hands in a threatening manner; the police have released a still shot of the victim, in which he assumed what they have called a shooting stance.

According to reports, no gun was found on the victim, who was shot both by a Taser and by a gun and died later at a hospital from his injuries.

I have written before that every case is individual, that facts matter.

I still believe this to be true, but it is also true without a doubt that there is systemic or institutionalized racism in this country, and the consequences can be fatal, particularly in criminal justice.

As studies show, African-Americans are more likely to be stopped and frisked (a policy, championed by Donald Trump, even though it was ruled unconstitutional for violating the rights of minorities), ticketed, arrested, jailed and shot by law enforcement.

The case of the victim in El Cajon is yet another example of this, following, as it does the recent Tulsa and Charlotte, N.C., shootings.

But the El Cajon case is also different.

Because it involves a man who may indeed have suffered from mental illness.

I have written before about how the police not only need to learn de-escalation techniques in dealing with someone who is mentally ill; officers also need to have an experienced social worker on the scene who, at least in theory, knows how to speak to a person in the throes of psychosis or depression.

When people are severely psychotic and/or depressed, as the victim in El Cajon may have been, they are almost assuredly less of a threat to others than they are a threat to themselves.

They need to be talked to by someone who understands that they are terrified.

Being psychotic is akin to living in a nightmare.

The last thing a psychotic person wants is to have police officers draw guns or yell at him or her in an intimidating way.

I know this from my own experience in Southern California in the late 1990s when I was severely psychotic, when I thought I was going to be blamed for a series of crimes that I had not committed, when I feared that I was going to be killed.

As I have written before, I went to the police seeking help at two in the morning and was offered a jail cell even though I had committed no crime. A few minutes later, after leaving the police department, I walked down the middle of the street because it was well illuminated and I feared I might be attacked in an alleyway. A policeman in a squad car ordered me, through his megaphone, to get onto the sidewalk.

I obeyed.

That saved me from further problems with law enforcement that night.

Of course, it is also true that I am white, not black, like the El Cajon victim; like Eleanor Bumpurs; like Ezell Ford, who died on the streets of L.A. even though the police had reportedly been told that he was mentally ill; like Anthony Hill, a former serviceman who may have had bipolar disorder, who was naked and obviously unarmed as he ran outside an apartment complex in the Atlanta area a year or so ago, before he too was shot dead by police; like Tanisha Anderson, an African-American woman whose family called the police a couple of years ago to have her taken to a hospital because she was acting in a psychotic yet non-violent fashion before she was slammed onto the pavement by police in the Cleveland area and killed; like Miriam Carey, an African-American woman suffering from post-partum depression and psychosis, who in 2013 drove from her home in Connecticut all the way down to Washington, D.C., in all likelihood because, according to reports, she feared that President Obama was surreptitiously communicating with her, and, like me, when I was psychotic years before, she may very well have wanted to confess to her innocence.

Miriam Carey was unarmed, was traveling with her young child in the car, and was shot dead by law enforcement.

It might have been said of her, as it was of the El Cajon victim, that she was acting “erratically,” as her car hurtled through the nation’s capitol and smashed into security barriers.

Our nation’s leaders, Democratic and Republican alike, applauded when she was killed, even though Miriam Carey was a tortured soul who, I can almost guarantee, did not intend to hurt anyone.

As a society, we need to have more compassion for those with mental illness, who include people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

And the police and other law-enforcement officials not only need to take a training course in how to de-escalate situations with the mentally ill; they also need, as I have written before, to have social workers on the scene, if possible.

If no social workers are on the scene, then police need to Taser an uncooperative victim in the leg and use a gun only as a last, and I mean an absolutely last, resort.

It bears mentioning that African-Americans are not the only ones with mental illness who have been victimized by the police.

Kelly Thomas, a white man, reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia, was beaten and killed by law enforcement in Orange County, California, not that many years ago.

And yet, as I wrote earlier, there is no denying that African-Americans are far more likely to be ticketed, arrested and killed by police than white people, and that is true whether or not the victim suffers from mental illness.

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