Daly: Mental illness shouldn’t be a criminal problem

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Daly: Mental illness shouldn’t be a criminal problem

Alex Daly, Guest Columnist

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On Jan. 29, 2010, Aaron Campbell might have been suicidal. “Don’t make me get my gun, I’m serious,” he texted his girlfriend. She called 911, and his aunt had made a similar call that afternoon. Portland City police officers responded, presumably to ensure that Campbell wasn’t a risk to himself or to others. But after a breakdown in communication between Campbell and the police, the police shot Campbell multiple times with a beanbag gun and eventually fatally shot him in the back. “His back was my intended target,” the officer who shot him later testified.

Campbell died as an unarmed black man.

His death reflects the complicated issue of the criminalization of mental illness. This is a problem without a simple answer because the fact that Campbell was black and unarmed puts him in the minority of police shootings involving the mentally ill. In more than half of such cases, recently tallied by The Washington Post in 2015, the victims are usually white and armed. Campbell’s case may have been a race issue, but there is another problem we can implicate in his death: Officers are often ill-equipped to deal with incidents of severe emotional distress, and as a result, they run the risk of escalating violent situations to deadly consequences.

A sweeping criticism of police is tempting in these situations, and this type of criticism is necessary in Campbell’s case considering the officer’s reinstatement in the Portland Police Bureau on Dec. 30. But a more productive approach toward the broader issue of police response to these individuals is to look inward at our society as a whole and the way we treat mental health issues. It is true there are cases where suspects pose a threat to officers, but aiming guns and shouting at the irrational and mentally disturbed can sometimes bring their violent tendencies to the forefront. So when an armed suspect threatens the police, how are the police to respond?

And so the issue deepens.

A 2013 joint report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association looked at cases between 1980 and 2008, and found that people with a history of mental illness accounted for just over half of those shot by police during this period. The Washington Post placed this number at about a quarter.

Stigmatization of mental health concerns is undoubtedly a factor at play, because it prevents many from receiving the treatment they need. That those who need treatment often fail to receive it before matters get out of hand is a grave injustice responsible for setting in motion a series of events that result in tragedy. The police response is only part of the problem. We should also level blame at the societal failure to adequately deal with mental illness before confrontation. We’ve outsourced crisis intervention, essentially, to what Toronto Star columnist Royson James calls “social workers, with guns.”

To be sure, we should be asking critical questions about the way that suicidal, schizophrenic and psychotic incidents are handled by armed officers. In Campbell’s case, the police are to blame for introducing greater and unnecessary degrees of violence into a sensitive situation that would have benefited immensely from greater attention from trained professionals. Instead, the medical professional to last greet Campbell was a medical examiner, and this is too often the case.

In other cases, where individuals present legitimate threats, we should be asking ourselves what allowed these situations to happen in the first place. Could it have been the failure of a mental health care infrastructure? Or could it be that police officers are not psychiatrists and that prisons are not psychiatric hospitals? These are the questions worth our attention if we want to solve the often unacknowledged crisis of the treatment of the mentally ill. It boils down to the fact that mental illness is a health issue before it becomes a criminal one. And if we look closely enough, I’m confident we’ll find more than the police to blame.

Alex Daly is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted AlexDaly2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.