I spent the better half of 2016 researching every police-related killing in the United States. I did it for a work of art I created called ‘…and counting.‘ When I began the project, the nation was still reeling from Michael Brown’s death in 2015 and the subsequent protests that rocked Ferguson, Missouri. The outrage that started percolating throughout the nation’s liberal communities after Brown’s death turned into a full-blown crisis with the deaths of Sandra Bland and Philando Castille a few months later.
I went into the project deeply troubled by the prevalence of these killings (about three people a day lose their lives to police brutality in the US). The only nations that surpass this average are the Philippines and Brazil. South Africa trails us with about one person a day, and Kenya comes in around one person every other day, then it drops off precipitously.
After sifting through all of these incidents there seemed to be a lot of commonalities within the circumstances. Most obviously, 96% of the people killed were men. Roughly 89% of those killed were known to be armed (this includes knives, guns, cars used as weapons, and other objects like tools). Of the remaining 11%, roughly half were unarmed. While much of the reporting was vague and didn’t go into the life details of each victim, a fair number of the victims were known to have a mental illness — about 1 in 4. Racial disparities of those killed by police disproportionately affected people of color. About 10 Native Americans per 1 million people were killed by police, Blacks came in at 6.66, Latinx at 3.25, Whites at 3, and Asian/Pacific Islanders at 1.
Case after case, I read about someone who was suicidal and called the cops on themselves, only to be shot after waving a knife or lunging at an officer — many of them former service members who participated in the Gulf War, Vietnam, or other wars. While there was obviously a fair share of people who were evading police after a car chase or robbery, a significant portion of people entered into conflict with police after family members called 911 because the person was acting erratically or violently in their own home.
All of the outcry and protests we see after yet another unfair shooting haven’t been enough to force the sweeping changes we need in our police departments. True change needs to begin with significant transformations of how police interact with our communities.
After reading over 1,000 reports of murder I was emotionally exhausted. My therapist even told me I had traumatized myself by doing the research. If it had that kind of effect on me, I’m quite sure that officers who engage in dealing with some of the most troubled people in our society are deeply traumatized by what they see — daily — on the job, and likely have significant PTSD.
Within the policing community getting any kind of therapy is rarely supported. Many officers are afraid that they could get their weapons taken from them if they are deemed unstable, so instead of getting help, their instability compounds. Many who do consider therapy don’t feel understood by a layperson and consequently cut their time short, or never start at all.
The First Responders Wellness Center in Chicago was created by former service members to specifically support law enforcement, first responders, and veterans dealing with PTSD, trauma, depression, and other mental health issues. While the group has been around since 2015, the officer suicide rate in Chicago is sky high with an estimated 60% higher rate than any other department in the country. Two studies show that police officer families experience domestic violence at a rate two to four times higher than the average American family.
Officers need help. They’re taking it out not only on their own families but on the general population, as well.
More organizations like The First Responders need to be available to support officers, so that they don’t continue to perpetuate fatal acts in our communities in such high rates.
During my research I was alarmed to find that the average police officer gets only eight hours of mental health training. This training helps them deescalate situations that involve someone who is having a mental health crisis. When over 25% of police-related deaths entail someone who is known to be mentally ill, then doesn’t it make sense to give officers more training to understand de-escalation techniques with more clarity? Or perhaps we should consider as a society the benefit in sending mental health experts that are highly trained to resolve these situations? Many of these circumstances could be better addressed by those in positions that truly understand what is going on, what the person may be suffering from, and how best to support them during a mental health crisis.
Additional trainings like implicit bias awareness and cultural competency are also essential, as is maintaining that officers live in the communities that they police. Police Athletic Leagues have shown great promise in connecting officers to young people in the city in ways that build trust, lowers crime, recidivism, and brutality rates.
While calls for abolishing the police force altogether sounds like something many people think they want, we are far from making that utopia a reality with more guns in this country than there are people. We can transform our policing structures, education, approaches, and communities with time and a dedicated effort by everyone — not just those on the front lines who have lost their family members to police violence.
What could our communities be like if officers were required to have mental health support, were trained in implicit bias awareness and cultural competency, and were supported by mental health de-escalation teams? We would save many lives, have stronger communities, healthier officers, and would likely see arrest rates drop, which would in turn lower recidivism and incarceration rates.
Artwork by: Juliet Romano Design.
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.