Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Philip Coleman, who had mental illness, died in police custody in Chicago
David Perry: The people responsible for violence toward him must be held accountable
Last week, in what’s become a regular ritual, the city of Chicago released another video showing Chicago police officers abusing a civilian.
This time, the victim was Philip Coleman, who died in custody (reportedly of an adverse reaction to medication) not long after being repeatedly being stunned with a Taser and dragged from his cell. The autopsy found evidence of considerable physical trauma, with more than 50 bruises and abrasions all over his body.
The people responsible for this violence must be held accountable. At the same time, we need to examine the system that put Coleman in the hands of the police in the first place. We must stop focusing all our attention on handling mental health crises and instead devote more resources to keeping people out of crisis altogether.
On December 12, 2012, Philip Coleman was at his mother’s house in the West Pullman neighborhood of Chicago when he became upset and threatening. His mother left the house, ran to a neighbor’s and called the police. She told them that her son needed medical help. Their response, according to Philip’s father Percy, was to say, “We don’t do hospitals, we do jail.” The officers took Philip to the Far South Side lockup. Abuse and death followed.
Embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to investigate the death and characterized Coleman’s treatment as unacceptable. He’s right; it is unacceptable. While the specific abuse in prison is unusual and disgusting, violent interactions between police and people in mental health crises are far too common.
A few days after the Coleman video was released, the Treatment Advocacy Center put out a new report called “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters.” The report details many ways that we underserve people with severe mental illness. One chilling statistic stands out.
Although only around 4% of Americans have severe mental illness, “by all accounts – official and unofficial – a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness. At this rate, the risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness than for other civilians approached or stopped by officers.”
The good news is that many of these tragedies can be prevented.
Police need better training to recognize mental illness, to prioritize de-escalation and accommodation of psychiatric disability and to be held accountable for their actions. Police officers can take Crisis Intervention Team training or be paired with mental health professionals, both of which might help.
Once a person has entered crisis, though, the best we can hope to do is mitigate the possibility of violence. Wouldn’t it be better to keep people out of crisis altogether? Unfortunately, lawmakers respond to evidence of problems in our mental health system by just doubling down on crisis.
Currently, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is advocating the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (H.R.2646), better known as the “Murphy Bill” after its lead sponsor, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania. The Murphy Bill, according to many mental health experts, takes money away from community-based care to fund court-mandated medication (i.e., forced drugging) and forced institutionalization.
The Murphy Bill focuses our whole mental health system on crisis response rather than crisis prevention. For Philip Coleman, such policy changes might have sent him to a hospital rather than a jail cell, but it would have done nothing to help him in the first place.
There’s a better way. Instead of pouring resources into coercive measures at the point of crisis, we could invest in what Bethany Lilly, a policy attorney at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, calls “upstream solutions.”
We identify how and why people enter into crisis and where the system failed them and try to stop those problems before they start.
For example, psychiatrically disabled homeless people have violent encounters with police not because their disability causes them to be violent, but because we’ve criminalized homelessness. Find them housing.
Most private insurance plans provide much worse access to care than Medicaid. Use regulation to make private plans better and expand Medicaid in all the states.
Instead of crisis teams, invest in community treatments teams that regularly monitor the lives of their clients, assisting them in find pathways to inclusion and accommodation, rather than forcing them onto drugs or into institutions.
When Philip Coleman went into mental health crisis and his mother called 911, he should have been met by mental health experts, not police officers. When he was taken into custody, he should have been taken to a good mental health facility, not a jail cell. But if we really want to help the next Philip Coleman, we’ll invest in mental health care designed to keep them from going into crisis in the first place.
We’ll save both money and lives.
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