Editor’s Note: Sandra Allen is the author of “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia” (Scribner, 2018). The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
An NYPD sergeant named Hugh Barry, a 32-year-old white man, was recently acquitted of murder in the death of a 66-year-old black woman named Deborah Danner. Deborah Danner had long been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 2016, a building security guard called 911, saying that Danner was causing a disturbance in a hallway and that he needed help. As is often the case in this country, that help came in the form of the police.
Cornered in her bedroom, Deborah Danner had a bat, one that, depending whom you ask, she either did or didn’t swing. Sergeant Barry fired twice, killing Danner. He was carrying a Taser that he hadn’t used. He also hadn’t waited for a specialized mental health team to arrive.
Outcry followed, and Mayor Bill De Blasio condemned the shooting, saying it is “tragic and it is unacceptable.” The police chief James O’Neill said in a press conference, “What is clear in this one instance: we failed.”
By contrast, Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told the New York Times that Barry “was made a political pawn the night of this incident.”
For the last two weeks, our nation’s discourse has been focused on another horrible story: an incident that left 17 Americans dead, including many children. The rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida is the eighth school shooting to result in death or injury in the first two months of this year, and has inspired a wave of activism against the ravages of gun violence. This, too, has drawn criticism from opponents who reject the idea of reform after tragedy as overly political. As ever, those who oppose any discussion about gun reform as the obvious way to curb gun deaths have trotted out their favorite scapegoat: “the mentally disturbed,” as the President tweeted early the morning after the shooting.
Meeting with Parkland survivors at the White House last Wednesday and during his speech at CPAC on Friday, Mr. Trump continued to focus his remarks on “mental health” and on people who are “crazy” and “sick.”
Mr. Trump in these comments was repeating a stereotype that is popular and also false: that “insane” people are to blame for gun violence. The notion that violence can be blamed on those with psychiatric disabilities stands in stark contrast to the reality of what life is like for such people in this country, as the Deborah Danner story makes all too clear. Trump invokes fear through stereotype in an effort to distract from the obvious reason he and many others of his party fail to take seriously gun violence and the threat it poses to all Americans, including our schoolchildren: the millions in financial support those politicians receive from the gun lobbies.
The NRA likewise opts to scapegoat some “insane” bogeyman during times like these. During last Wednesday night’s CNN town hall with survivors in Florida, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch was asked by student activist Emma Gonzalez whether it should be harder to obtain fully automatic weapons. Loesch in her answer spoke about an “insane monster,” “crazy people,” and repeatedly used the words “crazy” and “nuts.”
The mainstream media have largely failed to condemn the flagrant ableism of such statements by members of the GOP and the NRA. Even our most liberal outlets continue to repeat lies or misinformation about “the mentally ill” and violence. Research has shown that people with psychiatric disabilities are no more likely to be violent.
People with psychiatric diagnoses are ten times as likely to be the victims of violent crime, according to statistics backed by the federal government. They are likelier to harm themselves. They are likelier to be injured – and killed – by police.
Some Americans, of course, know well what the situation actually is for those who are “mentally disturbed.” It’s a reality that has long been grim and is growing worse, predictably, under this administration, as health care generally and the rights of the disabled specifically are further eroded. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted earlier this month to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act, aided by 12 Democrats. They’re making it harder for people to sue for discrimination, which affects all people with disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities. Such actions suggest a failure to understand that disability – including psychiatric disability – could affect any of us, any of our loved ones.
Throughout Sergeant Barry’s trial, Deborah Danner’s family and friends from her church and knitting group filled the courtroom, as did Black Lives Matter activists. The sergeant’s supporters wept when the verdict was read, the New York Times reported, while someone on Danner’s side called after them, “What if that was your mother?”
In a 2012 essay, Deborah Danner reflected upon “Living with Schizophrenia.” She discussed the debilitating flashbacks, the humiliating ruptures in social relationships. She discussed the discrimination she faced. She discussed the inadequate mental health care she received. She wrote that schizophrenia’s only “saving grace” was that, “as far as I know, it’s not a fatal disease.”
But Deborah Danner also knew that her potential to lapse into a frightening private reality made her more likely to encounter – and be killed by – law enforcement. So far this year, according to the Washington Post, 146 Americans have been killed by police. As I’ve written previously, whereas generally there is not good data collection pertaining to the Americans who are injured or killed by police, there is especially little awareness of just how great a percentage of those are psychiatrically disabled. (For that story, a BuzzFeed News analysis of all Californians killed by police in 2014 found that 16% had a confirmed psychiatric history.) Some estimates put this figure at a quarter, or even half.
Police departments in New York City and many other places haven’t trained all officers in de-escalation techniques, especially when interacting with people with known histories of mental health or addiction issues. Often, in fact, police training instructs an officer to meet nonresponsive behavior with force, including deadly force.
In Danner’s essay, she reflected upon an incident 28 years before, in which a woman named Eleanor Bumpurs was killed by police in her apartment, also in the Bronx. “They used deadly force to subdue her because they were not trained sufficiently in how to engage the mentally ill in crisis,” Danner wrote. “This is not an isolated incident.”
In each case, a black woman in her sixties with a known psychiatric history was slain in her Bronx home, and, following a public uproar, law enforcement was – unusually – charged. In 1987, the officer who shot Ms. Bumpurs was tried on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide – and was also acquitted.
After the verdict in Danner’s killing, I spoke with Vinny Eng about Sergeant Barry’s acquittal. In 2012, Vinny’s sister, Jazmyne Eng, was shot by a sheriff’s deputy in the lobby of the clinic in Los Angeles where she had long received mental health care. “My sister was killed within 12 seconds of visual contact by the officers,” he said. Since her death, he’s devoted himself to advocating for changes that will decrease the number of people like his sister who are killed by police, especially in San Francisco, where he lives. Increasingly, he said, police and sheriff’s departments are recognizing that they too have an interest in making sure things never get to this tragic point.
“That officer going through this trial, he’s a person, too,” Eng said. “It’s not lost on me that he’s probably traumatized by this whole process by being put through a trial and being criminally charged.” He added that many who have lost family to police violence also have relatives in law enforcement. “It’s not binary,” he said. (One of Deborah Danner’s relatives present at the trial was a retired police officer.)
Eng discussed a report published last week by a sheriff civilian oversight commission in Los Angeles, one that offers four concrete solutions – this includes creating more specialized mental health teams, and department-wide de-escalation training. Eng spoke to his hope that law enforcement in other communities will likewise adopt these life-saving measures.
“We’re moving the needle,” he said.
A recent episode of the podcast “99 Percent Invisible” told the story of how, prior to the passage of contemporary car safety legislation, car manufacturers didn’t take any responsibility for deaths on the road. Instead, they blamed “the nut behind the wheel.”
Once the government was instead empowered to study and to therefore work to prevent vehicular death, changes like steering column redesign and safety belts saved untold lives. In other words, the problem wasn’t – and of course had never been – “nuts.”
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At present, a provision called the Dickey amendment prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” which has translated into a political reality in which gun violence isn’t studied or treated as the public health catastrophe that it is. In the case of cars, what changed was the public: people finally had enough. Now, too, the public appears to have had enough. As we move forward, we must be vigilant in rejecting this same old lie about the root of gun violence. It is unacceptable to blame our worst social ills upon our society’s most vulnerable.