When Joe Prude called the police on his brother, he was asking for help: Daniel Prude, who suffered from mental health problems, had run almost naked out of his Rochester, New York, house into the snow. When officers arrived, new video footage shows, the March 23 encounter quickly turned violent, and Prude died from asphyxiation under a hood officers had put over his head.
Two years prior, in 2018, Shukri Ali Said of Georgia also wound up dead after leaving her house during a mental health crisis on April 23, 2018. Police, called in to help, found Said standing at an intersection holding a knife. Officers shot her five times in the neck and chest, killing her.
That same month, in New York, officers answered a 911 call about a black man waving something that looked like a gun. In fact, it was a pipe. But when Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father with mental illness who was well known in his Brooklyn community, pointed it at police, they shot him dead.
Prude, Vassell and Said are among the hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in the United States killed by police every year. According to The Washington Post, 197 of the 999 people shot by police last year had a mental illness.
Police are almost always the first responders in cases of mental health crises in the United States, as they are in criminal and medical emergencies.
From deinstitutionalization to disarray
As a disability and ethics scholar who focuses on criminal justice, I know this country has long failed to justly and humanely care for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.
For most of American history, people with mental health disabilities were locked away in hospital-like institutions, many of them state-run. Starting in the 1950s, the physical and sexual abuse common in these facilities, as well as other inhumane practices, spurred a decades-long effort to close them down and return residents to the community.
This process, called deinstitutionalization, was meant to replace institutions with local mental health centers that would provide community-based mental health treatment and assistance for those recently released from institutions.
However, in 1981 Ronald Reagan cut most funding for these centers. And since other existing community services – like schools, housing and health services – were not adapted to meet the needs of these new community members, many were left jobless, homeless and unable to get a good education.
Some people are fortunate enough to live with their families or in one of the United States’ roughly 500 private residential facilities – places that can cost up to US$60,000 a year. Others end up homeless, in poorly run facilities or even in jails.
But everyone with these disabilities is at high risk of interacting with police. Too often, these interactions go poorly.
‘Nothing about us without us’
In hopes of identifying practices that prevent avoidable deaths, I’ve been interviewing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Under the terms of the academic ethics boards overseeing my research, the names of all my interview subjects are protected.
One reason police encounters can go wrong, I’ve learned, is that people with intellectual disabilities often struggle to comprehend spoken instructions – particularly in a high-stress situation.
“People who don’t have [an intellectual disability] don’t have a hard time understanding what the police are asking them to do,” one man told me. “It’s different for me.”
People with these disabilities are also often disbelieved by the police. A woman I interviewed – who communicated slowly due to her disabilities – said she called 911 on her boyfriend for hitting her. But the police believed the boyfriend’s story that she was the violent one and arrested her instead.
“When they find out that you’re not capable of understanding what’s going on, it’s a free-for-all,” another interview subject told me.
People with intellectual disabilities may struggle in court, too. When one interviewee didn’t understand a judge’s question, he told me, he was sentenced to three months in county jail for disorderly conduct.
Judges and lawyers “need to listen to people that’s on disability,” said the woman arrested after calling 911 on her abusive partner, urging patience.
Strategies for change
Recognizing that they struggle to handle people in mental crisis, many U.S. cities are making efforts to improve outcomes.
New York City trains some officers in crisis intervention and recently mandated that a social worker must accompany officers to such cases. Denver is looking to adopt a mobile crisis intervention program started in Oregon that ensures medics and crisis workers, not police, respond to mental health calls.
These and similar efforts nationwide are a step in the right direction. But my research indicates they may not go far enough.
Police frequently encounter people with psychiatric disabilities when someone calls 911 about a person acting unusually in public. If police perceive that person as potentially violent, the situation can quickly escalate.
That’s how Anthony Hill, a black veteran found wandering around his Atlanta apartment complex naked, died in 2015. Hill, who had gone off his medication, ran toward Officer Robert Olsen, who shot him. Olsen was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Nov. 1, 2019, for aggravated assault and violating his oath of office.
Nor do laws targeting police violence address the factors that lead people with mental health disabilities to need emergency assistance in the first place.
Despite growing recognition of the stigma around mental illness, people with mental health disabilities are often still feared, pitied and associated with violence in TV and movies. This social stigma can lead to societal rejection and isolation. And the difficulties people with mental health challenges face finding adequate housing, health care and employment all increase their risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.
One lesson from the history of American mental health care is that reforming just one problematic aspect of the system doesn’t work. To serve this population’s needs, other institutions – from education to housing – must also be made more flexible, responsive and accessible.
Just as shuttering institutions 60 years ago solved little, simply targeting police responses won’t suffice now, either.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
108 Black Men And Boys Killed By Police
1. Matthew Williams, 351 of 108
2. Daunte Wright, 20Source:Twitter/@MeritLaw 2 of 108
3. Marvin D. Scott III, 26Source:GoFundMe 3 of 108
4. Kurt Reinhold, 42Source:Getty 4 of 108
5. McHale Rose, 195 of 108
6. Xzavier Hill, 18Source:Change.org 6 of 108
7. Frederick Cox, 18Source:Facebook/Tenicka Shannon 7 of 108
8. Patrick Warren Sr.Source:Patrick Warren Jr. 8 of 108
9. Carl Dorsey III, 399 of 108
10. Dolal Idd, 23Source:GoFundMe 10 of 108
11. Andre' Hill, 4711 of 108
12. Joshua Feast12 of 108
13. Maurice GordonSource:Mercury LLC 13 of 108
14. Casey Goodson Jr.Source:Walton + Brown, LLP 14 of 108
15. Rodney ApplewhiteSource:Ben Crump 15 of 108
16. A.J. Crooms16 of 108
17. Sincere Pierce17 of 108
18. Walter Wallace Jr.18 of 108
19. Marcellis Stinnette, teen killed by police in Waukegan, IllinoisSource:Twitter 19 of 108
20. Jonathan Price20 of 108
21. Deon Kay21 of 108
22. Daniel Prude22 of 108
23. Damian Daniels23 of 108
24. Dijon Kizzee24 of 108
25. Trayford PellerinSource:GoFundMe 25 of 108
26. David McAtee26 of 108
27. Natosha “Tony” McDade27 of 108
28. George Floyd28 of 108
29. Yassin Mohamed29 of 108
30. Finan H. Berhe30 of 108
31. Sean ReedSource:Twitter 31 of 108
32. Steven Demarco TaylorSource:S. Lee Merritt 32 of 108
33. Ariane McCreeSource:The Herald/YouTube 33 of 108
34. Terrance Franklin34 of 108
35. Miles HallSource:KRON4 35 of 108
36. Darius TarverSource:S. Lee Merritt 36 of 108
37. William Green37 of 108
38. Samuel David Mallard, 1938 of 108
39. Kwame "KK" Jones, 17Source:facebook 39 of 108
40. De’von Bailey, 1940 of 108
41. Christopher Whitfield, 3141 of 108
42. Anthony Hill, 2642 of 108
43. De'Von Bailey, 1943 of 108
44. Eric Logan, 5444 of 108
45. Jamarion Robinson, 2645 of 108
46. Gregory Hill Jr., 3046 of 108
47. JaQuavion Slaton, 2047 of 108
48. Ryan Twyman, 2448 of 108
49. Brandon Webber, 2049 of 108
50. Jimmy Atchison, 2150 of 108
51. Willie McCoy, 2051 of 108
52. Emantic "EJ" Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., 2152 of 108
53. D’ettrick Griffin, 1853 of 108
54. Jemel Roberson, 26Source:false 54 of 108
55. DeAndre Ballard, 23Source:false 55 of 108
56. Botham Shem Jean, 26Source:false 56 of 108
57. Antwon Rose Jr., 17Source:false 57 of 108
58. Robert Lawrence White, 41Source:false 58 of 108
59. Anthony Lamar Smith, 24Source:Getty 59 of 108
60. Ramarley Graham, 18Source:Getty 60 of 108
61. Manuel Loggins Jr., 31Source:Getty 61 of 108
62. Trayvon Martin, 17Source:Getty 62 of 108
63. Wendell Allen, 20Source:Getty 63 of 108
64. Kendrec McDade, 19Source:Getty 64 of 108
65. Larry Jackson Jr., 32Source:Getty 65 of 108
66. Jonathan Ferrell, 24Source:Getty 66 of 108
67. Jordan Baker, 26Source:Getty 67 of 108
68. Victor White lll, 22Source:Getty 68 of 108
69. Dontre Hamilton, 31Source:Getty 69 of 108
70. Eric Garner, 43Source:Getty 70 of 108
71. John Crawford lll, 22Source:Getty 71 of 108
72. Michael Brown, 18Source:Getty 72 of 108
73. Ezell Ford, 25Source:Getty 73 of 108
74. Dante Parker, 36Source:Getty 74 of 108
75. Kajieme Powell, 25Source:Getty 75 of 108
76. Laquan McDonald, 17Source:Getty 76 of 108
77. Akai Gurley, 28Source:Getty 77 of 108
78. Tamir Rice, 12Source:Getty 78 of 108
79. Rumain Brisbon, 34Source:Getty 79 of 108
80. Jerame Reid, 36Source:Getty 80 of 108
81. Charly Keunang, 43Source:Getty 81 of 108
82. Tony Robinson, 19Source:Getty 82 of 108
83. Walter Scott, 50Source:Getty 83 of 108
84. Freddie Gray, 25Source:Getty 84 of 108
85. Brendon Glenn, 29Source:Getty 85 of 108
86. Samuel DuBose, 43Source:Getty 86 of 108
87. Christian Taylor, 19Source:Getty 87 of 108
88. Jamar Clark, 24Source:Getty 88 of 108
89. Mario Woods, 26Source:Getty 89 of 108
90. Quintonio LeGrier, 19Source:Getty 90 of 108
91. Gregory Gunn, 58Source:Getty 91 of 108
92. Akiel Denkins, 24Source:Getty 92 of 108
93. Alton Sterling, 37Source:Getty 93 of 108
94. Philando Castile, 32Source:Getty 94 of 108
95. Terrence Sterling, 31Source:Getty 95 of 108
96. Terence Crutcher, 40Source:Getty 96 of 108
97. Keith Lamont Scott, 43Source:Getty 97 of 108
98. Alfred Olango, 38Source:Getty 98 of 108
99. Jordan Edwards, 15Source:Getty 99 of 108
100. Stephon Clark, 22Source:false 100 of 108
101. Danny Ray Thomas, 34Source:false 101 of 108
102. DeJuan Guillory, 27Source:false 102 of 108
103. Patrick Harmon, 50103 of 108
104. Jonathan Hart, 21104 of 108
105. Maurice Granton, 24105 of 108
106. Julius Johnson, 23106 of 108
107. Jamee Johnson, 22Source:S. Lee Merritt 107 of 108
108. Michael Dean, 28Source:S. Lee Merritt 108 of 108
How To Stop Cops From Killing People Suffering From Mental Illness was originally published on newsone.com