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By Shaun King
Sunday Apr 05, 2015 · 10:45 AM EDT
Anthony Hill, James Chasse, Tanisha Anderson
On April 30, 2014, Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney broke protocol on how to approach someone clearly struggling with mental illness. At 3:28 PM, Manney confronted Dontre Hamilton, who was sleeping on the ground outside of a local Starbucks, and immediately began treating him like a common criminal by patting him down from behind and asking him if he had any weapons. He didn’t, but one minute later Dontre Hamilton was dead, shot by Manney.
What Manney didn’t know was that two officers had already performed a well-check on Hamilton and determined that he was not harming anyone or breaking any laws by being there. He wasn’t panhandling or even speaking to anyone. In Milwaukee, outdoor resting is not illegal. A Starbucks employee recounted what she saw:
I never witnessed Dontre attack Chris. Dontre only reacted to Chris’ lunge, in what appeared to be, a purely defensive way. After missing, Chris was frozen for a second, then reached down for his side arm. When he pulled this weapon out, I had a sickly feeling about what was going to happen next. Chris didn’t say anything to Dontre. Nothing like “calm down”, or “back away”, or anything of the sort, with his brandished firearm. He had his gun pointed at Dontre from about 10 feet away for a couple seconds. That’s when I heard the shots.
I counted the shots as they happened. I guess I expected Chris to just disable him, so I didn’t know how many shots to expect. I counted 3…then 5…then 7…then 10 all in very quick succession. Surely a trained police officer could have disabled Dontre without putting 10 bullets into him. With the rapid, rhythmic fire, there was no way Chris was stopping to check if Dontre was still alive. Count to 10 in your head in a fast-paced, rhythmic manner and ask yourself if you’re shooting to kill. While my cynical side knew what was going to happen to Dontre and compelled me to turn away, my coworker didn’t. They saw the whole thing play out. They will tell you the same thing about how once that gun was pulled out, it was Dontre’s end.
Manney lost his job, but the family of Dontre Hamilton lost their son and brother, and the city of Milwaukee was left with the enormous feeling that the incident could and should have been avoided. Furthermore, it was hard to feel like the loss of a job was a fair penalty for the unjust taking of a life.
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After nearly a year of protests and frustration in Milwaukee, subtle changes and improvements have been legislated on how police in the city should properly and safely handle men and women with mental illness, but the progress has been far too slow, critics say.
MICAH (Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope) counts among the critics of the work done so far, with some members calling for the expansion of hours for police-mobile mental health team pairings. Right now, such services aren’t available on the weekends, early mornings, and after midnight — times when incidents would likely occur. Reports that crisis intervention training for officers in the Milwaukee Police Department won’t wrap up until 2017 have also drawn the ire of some groups who point to the 30 percent reduction in the people who needed to be hospitalized in recent months as a sign that the program needs more support.
The problem is not a negligible one in Milwaukee or around the country—for example, one study showed that 58 percent of those killed by police in Maine had a pre-diagnosed mental illness. Many other states and cities have noted as high or higher rates. The Maine study, reviewing available data, stated,
State and local statistics are spotty and inconsistent, but a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.
Traditional, heavy-handed police tactics just don’t work with a man struggling through the fog of schizophrenia or a woman in the midst of a severe manic episode. Yelling or physical touching, for instance, may make an episode severely worse and cause sincere confusion for a mentally ill person. Daily, all across America, hospitals have tens of thousands of mentally ill men and women come across their threshold, many in the throes of the most severe episodes imaginable, and the thought of shooting and killing a patient isn’t even on the table. Other well-honed and respected strategies for confronting and subduing the mentally ill to prevent them from harming themselves or others have been mastered and improved upon for decades. Nurses all over America, every single one of them without guns, have bravely cared for millions of mental health patients without once producing a lethal weapon to protect themselves—even when they are in physical danger.
An officer with his or her finger on the trigger of a lethal weapon will rarely react well in the presence of mental illness. Below are many tragic cases in which mentally ill men and women needed the care of mental health professionals, but instead were confronted and killed by police. A new national standard must be enacted on how local police should interact and approach the mentally ill. Our current system is barbaric and unsafe for everyone.
Anthony Hill, a decorated war veteran, was completely unarmed and in midst of a manic episode when he was killed by police.
Shereese Francis, a 30-year-old New York woman with schizophrenia, was smothered to death by police inside of her home.
Brian Beaird, a mentally ill war veteran with a traumatic brain injury, was shot and killed, and he didn’t have a gun.
Eleanor Bumpurs, who had a history of psychiatric problems, was shot twice with a shotgun by police as they confronted her in New York because she owed $98 in back rent.
Milton Hall, homeless and struggling with mental illness, was shot at 46 times and killed, even though he was completely surrounded by over a dozen officers and truly just needed medical intervention.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes didn’t have a gun when he was killed. He was throwing rocks and was fighting through mental illness.
Lavall Hall didn’t have a gun. He had a red broom and was struggling with mental illness.
James Chasse, a mentally ill musician, was beaten to death by police in Portland, Oregon.
Kristina Coignard, a mentally ill teenage girl, was shot, and she didn’t have a gun and was struggling with mental illness.
Kajieme Powell was having a manic episode in front of a convenience store when St. Louis police shot and killed him within seconds of seeing him.
The family of Matthew Ojibade called 911 for medical help and asked the police to take him to the hospital instead of the police station. They even gave the police medication for him, but police killed him in custody.
Kelly Thomas, an unarmed schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton, California, was beaten to death by police.
Just 5-foot, 2-inches, tall and weighing 130 pounds, Domonic Felder was having a mental health breakdown when he was killed by Minnesota police. They later paid the family the second largest settlement in state history.
James Boyd, living in Albuquerque mountains and struggling with mental illness, didn’t have a gun when he was killed.
Tanisha Anderson, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was killed by police as her family watched officers slam her to the ground in front of the family home.
Dennis Grigsby struggled with mental illness his entire life. He was shot and killed by an officer in Texas who claimed the spoon Dennis was holding looked like a knife.
Darrius Kennedy, a New York City street performer who had struggled with mental illness, was shot and killed police in Times Square.
Michael Cambredella, a teenager in his own front yard in Boynton Beach, Florida, was shot and killed by police after his family called 911 requesting intervention.
Mhai Scott, a petite woman with a history of psychiatric problems, had a manic episode in the middle of Costco and was shot and killed by police.
Ezell Ford, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was shot in the back and killed by the LAPD.
Tinoris Williams, who had a long history of psychiatric hospitalization, was shot and killed by police in Palm Beach, Florida.
Homeless for over 20 years, Jack Dale Collins struggled valiantly through mental illness but was shot and killed by police in Portland, Oregon.
Jason Harrison was struggling with schizophrenia when his mother called 911 for help. They killed him within seconds of seeing him for the first time.
After his mother called 911 so her mentally ill son could be taken to the hospital, police in Oxnard, California, shot and killed Robert Jones, who was cowering in his bedroom closet. The city later paid the family a $1.5 million settlement.
The mother of Kaldrick Donald called 911 because her son desperately needed to take his medication to help him cope with mental illness. Police in Gretna, Florida, killed him inside of the bathroom of his home.
Michelle Cusseaux was struggling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Her mother called 911 for a medical intervention, but Cusseaux was killed by police instead.
Charley Leundeu Keunang, a homeless man from Cameroon known by the name of “Africa” on Skid Row in Los Angeles, was shot and killed by police in a tragic and avoidable confrontation.
Keith Vidal, a teenager with schizophrenia in North Carolina, was shot and killed by police after his mother called for medical help.
Janisha Fonville, a petite 5-foot-tall woman struggling with mental illness, was shot and killed by police after her girlfriend called 911 for a medical intervention.
Alesia Thomas was kicked repeatedly in the groin and abdomen by the LAPD before she later died in police custody. She suffered from depression and bipolar disorder.
Jeffrey Towe, age 53, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man and moved close to his sister in Woodland, California, so that she could be his full-time caretaker. He was shot and killed by police.
Matthew Pollow had a lifelong history of mental illness and was shot and killed after confronted by police in Palm Beach, Florida.
David Latham, 35, of Norfolk, Virginia, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 15. His family called 911 seeking help for him. Police shot and killed him.
Donald “Dontay” Ivy was killed by police in Albany, New York. He was completely unarmed and suffered from schizophrenia.
Decorated Iraq war veteran Jason White was completely unarmed when he was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio. He was being treated for mental illness after being honorably discharged from the military.
Sophia King was 23 years old when she was shot and killed by police in Austin, Texas, after an amazingly difficult life battling mental illness.
James Daniels, 19, was suicidal and was cutting himself with an exacto knife when police chased and shot him to death in his back in Ventura, California. The county settled with the family.
Jonathan McCourt was shot and killed by police in Iowa after they saw him spray painting his own truck. He had a toy gun that police said he brandished. He suffered from severe mental illness.
Michael Hildebrandt, who fought a lifelong battle with mental illness, was shot and killed inside of the homeless shelter in Lima, Ohio, where he lived after he started a fire in his room.
None of these men or women possessed guns when they were killed by police. While some of them did indeed have screwdrivers or scissors or knives, the force used against them is extreme when one considers their mental health. In spite of the fact that families often called 911 for medical intervention in many of these cases, they were almost always met with a harsh law enforcement response instead.
The cities of Houston and Memphis are pioneering the creative partnership between law enforcement and mental health professionals. Milwaukee, using those cities as a model, now aims to have dozens of mental health experts available to arrive on the scene with police officers to help them with non-lethal options where available.
What realistic suggestions or policy solutions do you propose to drastically curb this American crisis? While it is unlikely that we will ever permanently end police brutality in America, surely we can do better than this.