My Pain. Our Pain: Help Me Help the Mentally Ill Survive Police Interactions Without Being Killed

Illustration for article titled My Pain. Our Pain: Help Me Help the Mentally Ill Survive Police Interactions Without Being Killed
Photo: AP Photo (Seth Wenig)

I need your help. I’ll tell you what kind at the end of this piece.

But first I need to tell you a story:

One day, I got a call from my Aunt Pat—my mother’s identical twin. Or maybe the call was from my mother—her voice pained. Panicked. Frantic. It’s all a blur now.

I had taken what seemed like hundreds of these calls before, and they always came at the most inopportune times. Drop everything; mommy is having a crisis.

Only this time it was different.

This time, it was different because my mother, who has a bipolar diagnosis, said that the police were at her door and she didn’t want to let them in. So I jumped in a cab from Harlem and rushed to the Bronx. Apparently, when someone is in psychiatric distress in New York City, even if they (or their loved ones) call 911 for an ambulance, the police come first, ostensibly to protect the paramedics and the public.


When I arrived, there were scores of them; my mother lived on the second floor, and I rushed up the staircase to her door. I asked the police if I could go in and talk to her. I had the keys.

No, said one. Procedure now dictates that she’s a “threat,” they could not risk it. They said she would have to open the door willingly or they would have to break it down.

My mother is screaming through the door that she’s “not letting the pigs in.” Folks in the throes of mania rarely use language that is politically correct.


Don’t antagonize these people, I say to myself. Please.

The SWAT team arrives. Burly men with cold eyes and big guns and those plastic shields you see in riots.


I talk through the door: “Mommy, please open the door. Please do it for me,” I say, sounding like a little kid begging for more TV time.

The first SWAT Team guy looks like he’s hopped up on something, bored, itching to get it done, and I continue to talk through the door. Pleading.


Finally, she opens it, and I use my body to cover her. Swaddle her in my arms. My mother is 5'7" and weighs a good 110 pounds. She is small but that day she felt as fragile as a fallen bird.

The police tell me to step away from her. I look into their eyes. Clearly, I speak. “This is my mother. Please do not hurt her. She’s sick.”


I wanted to humanize her. To let them know that she is loved. A grandmother. An elder in her mosque. To let them know that she is not a caricature, and that they would have to go through me to get to her.

I say, “I don’t want her killed. I know how these things end.” Especially for black people, who are inherently, or perhaps tacitly, viewed as a threat. I look into their eyes. “This is my mother.”


I told them that I know the statistics—that more than 25 percent of those killed by police are in mental health crises. I know the names. Like Deborah Danner, the 66-year-old woman in the Bronx, who was killed in her house because she wielded a pair of scissors. Or 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago, a kid home from college for his Thanksgiving break. He had a bat. His father called 911. Police shot him six times and killed his downstairs neighbor, Bettie Jones, a 53-year-old mother and grandmother, who just happened to get caught in the crossfire. Or 27-year-old Anthony Hill in Atlanta. A veteran who served in Afghanistan, in a mental health crisis who was naked, but still shot and killed by police. There’s 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton, who was shot 14 times; 30-year-old Charleena Lyles, who was shot in front of her children. Alfred Olango. Tanisha Anderson. Darell Richards. 

I released her. I don’t remember much else except seeing her get into the ambulance. Still cussing. Insulting people.


A youngish cop, maybe in his 30s engaged me. He said, ‘You know not all police are like that.’ And I know what he was trying to say. But that day I was tired. Spent. I didn’t have the energy to say that it’s not really about individuals but systems. Broken systems that empower people to kill black people—really, all people—with no consequence.

And all I could do was look at him. I was too worried about finding a ride to the hospital to say anything more.


So that’s my story. That fateful, terrifying encounter is what led me to apply for and ultimately receive the 2018-2019 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship; that, and working at The Root, where we report on the incessant deaths of African Americans by police, many of them in mental health crises.


For my fellowship year, which began this month and runs through next September, I want to do a deep dive into the NYPD’s Crisis Intervention Training program, a four-day class implemented in 2015.

As it now stands, the NYPD focuses on training as many officers as possible. The Daily News recently reported that only about 8,200 of the NYPD’s 36,000-member force has received CIT. The department says it aims to have at least one CIT-trained officer and supervisor available at all times in every precinct.


Yet, since 2014, the year the mayor convened a task force to look at mental illness and policing, 11 people with mental health issues—all people of color—have died in encounters with cops, including Saheed Vassell. Dwayne Jeune. And of course, Deborah Danner, who could have been my mother.

Unlike other models of CIT, the NYPD’s program places a strong emphasis on “self-care”: officers receive instruction in how common PTSD is among urban police officers and about the importance of seeking treatment and to reduce the stigma of mental illness, apparently to promote empathy.


In early September, I traveled to Atlanta to present my topic of study, meet my cohort of fellows, and talk to some of the most renown mental health experts in the world. Some questions I seek to answer during my fellowship year include:

  • As an intervention against police violence against the mentally ill, can we gauge if the Crisis Intervention Program (CIT) program is working or not? How is its effectiveness being determined?
  • How, in fact, does the NYPD quantify its effectiveness? If they are not quantifying it, why not? Do they even keep statistics?
  • Is the training itself ineffective? Is it too short? Is it because those trained in CIT are not being dispatched to mental health (or “Emotionally Disturbed Persons”) calls? Are there simply too many EDP calls to effectively respond?
  • Is there a racial analysis in the CIT training? That is, is there any acknowledgment of the systemic bias against people of color coupled with mental health stigma (i.e., an erratic black man or woman is inherently dangerous)?

As part of my research, I plan to make a trip to Memphis, where I will study the “Memphis Model,” one of the first CIT programs created in the country in 1987 at the University of Memphis and perhaps to one or two other cities for comparison. The conventional wisdom is that CIT programs are most effective when those who participate do so voluntarily, which is not the case in New York City.

I am letting you, The Root audience, in on my quest, and actively encourage your support, resources, good wishes and love taps. Send any of the above to me at Twitter; and please let me know if there is a local story we should know about regarding the police and a deadly encounter with someone who has a mental health diagnosis.


What I have gleaned so far is that many of the families of those killed by police push for training, but the quality of training is just as important as the training itself.

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently testified before Congress:

Police are often the first responders when a person is in psychiatric distress. Every community owes it to them to provide the knowledge and training to handle mental health crisis situations safely and compassionately. Ultimately, we should be promoting treatment rather than warehousing them in jails and prisons.


Or shooting them dead.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.

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Wow, that was hard to read anticipating the ending but hoping it ends better than statistics suggest. In this case, it did. Stay strong for your family (not just your mother but all the other potential non-diagnosed crazy folks in the tree) because they will need you.  Like DetroitGuys says, we all are pulling for you.