Allen and Gonring: How police hurt everybody’s mental health

Kenny Allen and Eliza Gonring

In response to Mr. Holland’s April 11 op-ed:

The prison-industrial complex, for which police are foot soldiers, is responsible for the current reality of mental health treatment in this country. Deinstitutionalization, a phenomenon that started in the 1950s, has served to rid our country of long-term mental health care options. According to NPR, private mental health hospitals can cost up to $30,000 per month, leaving those without the resources few alternatives. As these private hospitals do not accept insurance, low-income individuals seeking treatment must rely on Medicaid, but the federal government is not allowed to pay for long-term care in an institution.

Through personal experience, we are well aware that outside of the community stepping up, the only two institutions that offer help during a mental health crisis are emergency rooms or the police. Those are costly, dangerous and inadequate solutions. Those who are hospitalized are often re-admitted, and it is common for individuals to be hospitalized 20 times in a 10 year period. These rates show their ineffectiveness at providing care and the need for long-term facilities.

Due to the rate at which cops are called upon during mental health crises, two million people with serious mental illness are jailed every year. In addition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that two in five incarcerated people have a history of mental illness, less than half of people with mental illness receive treatment while in jails and one in four people shot by police have had a mental health condition. Coming into contact with police during a mental health crisis could result in death or incarceration, yet people in need of resources often have little choice. The incarceration of those with mental illness has come in tandem with deinstitutionalization. The percentage of those incarcerated with serious mental illness rose from .7 percent in 1880 to 21 percent in 2005.

The lack of mental health care for Black and low-income communities maintains the prison industrial complex by funneling people who need help into prisons and jails. This country’s reliance on carceral solutions is the reason we do not have mental health structures. Deinstitutionalization was intended to be conducted with the strengthening of community-based mental health systems. Instead, people are left with few options outside of the police. Even at an institution with a lot of resources like Northwestern, police were used to transport students to the emergency room when they deemed it “necessary” to initiate a process of forced hospitalization.

It is well known that prisons and police are weapons used by the state to control Black, brown and poor populations. It is no coincidence that the rates of mental health service use are among the lowest in Black populations and among the highest in White populations. The United States’ primary relationship with Black people is one of policing, even in matters unrelated to “crime.” For this country to provide adequate mental health services, police and prisons would need to be abolished and resources put toward community-based solutions.

If one believes that cops are asked to do too much and suffer from poor mental health because of it, then we’re on the same page. Asking people with guns to handle all of our public safety concerns is clearly not a strategy that’s working out. We should not accept it as a given that police officers have to constantly respond to stressful situations, especially when many of those situations could be avoided if we invested in public safety outside of policing.

The violence that cops experience while on the job is incomparable to the violence and the trauma — both physical and mental — that they cause. Cops are empowered to commit violence against people on a scale that would, rightfully, be treated as a crisis if done by a group of civilians. For example, the value of goods taken via asset forfeiture — wherein police are allowed to seize personal property without a criminal conviction or warrant — has now surpassed that of burglaries.

Here are some local examples of how police terrorize civilians:
— Twelve officers in Chicago are being sued for raiding a woman’s house on a warrant approved with the wrong address. While raiding her home with guns, she was forcibly cuffed naked in front of them.
— The Chicago Police Department has received a lawsuit for raiding a child’s fourth birthday party, during which they ransacked the home, poured hydrogen peroxide on the presents, and handcuffed the adults. The person they were looking for had no relation to the current tenants and had moved five years ago.
— In “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us,” Mariame Kaba notes, “The ACLU of Illinois says that last summer, based on population, Chicago police made ‘far more street stops than New York City police did at the height of their use of stop-and-frisk. The CPD stopped more than 250,000 innocent people.’”
— Northern Illinois Police Alarm System officers intimidated NU student protesters reading abolitionist literature together and used chemical weapons on them at a Halloween demonstration. Texts later showed officers saying their “trigger finger was itching” and expressing disappointment that they couldn’t shatter a protester’s kneecap.

What human has the authority to inflict the level of violence police inflict on the public? By virtue of their jobs, police are empowered to harm people in myriad ways and are systemically protected from consequences. Cops routinely engage in violent behavior, leading to severe trauma for the communities that are regularly on the receiving end.

Police officers may believe their jobs to be dangerous, but that doesn’t make it true. Although being a police officer is more dangerous than the average occupation, construction workers, trash collectors, and roofers all have higher rates of fatal injuries. Even though cops have a perception that their work is dangerous, they often don’t take measures to ensure their safety. For instance, in most years, the leading cause of death for police is getting into a car crash with no seat belt. Despite the obvious danger of speeding without a seatbelt, a study by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training found that 42 percent of officers killed in car accidents weren’t wearing seatbelts.

Police officers are often trained to have the impression that any interaction they have with the public could immediately escalate into violence. A leaked “warrior” training from the Kentucky State Police last year provides an example. This training emphasized “ruthlessness,” an ability “to meet violence with greater violence,” and a value system that “eliminates hesitation.” In addition, throughout their training, cops are frequently asked to picture scenarios where they make split second decisions between killing someone or being killed. It’s possible that a police officer will have to make that decision in their career. However, when training is oriented around the idea that any interaction with a civilian may turn fatal, cops come to think that their world is consumed by danger and that their only way to protect themselves is with preemptive violence.

We also can’t pretend that being a police officer is something one is born or forced into. Most cops even say that they wouldn’t recommend their job to their children. If cops are sick of the trauma associated with their jobs — unlike the people they terrorize — they can quit.

Kenny Allen and Eliza Gonring are Weinberg and SESP seniors, respectively. Allen can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.