It could have been any one of us in that car on a fall day in southern California.
October 31, 2016 in Torrence California, Michelle Shirley reportedly drove erratically due to a bipolar episode and was killed by the Torrence Police. She was 39 years old, an African American woman, mother, attorney, church goer, activist and living with bipolar. In a perfect world, mental health should not stigmatize anyone. But in our imperfect society, it does. Even worst, it can mean death and by those commissioned to serve and protect. The invisibility of bipolar (distractibility, hallucination and impulsiveness) makes it difficult to detect in hostile situations and can impede one’s ability to compliantly respond during crises, such as a high-chase police pursuit. For Shirley living with bipolar during lapsed treatment in a society that criminalizes and polices mental health resulted in a tragic end. This injustice must prompt us to take seriously the dangers of myopically treating mental health as a public safety issue and not a public health concern. It implores us to break the silence so that not another vulnerable person becomes a hashtag. Michelle Shirley’s life mattered and we have not heard this enough.
It could have been any one of us in that car on a fall day in southern California. Seen this way, Shirley is not alone. In fact, one month prior to her tragic death, an African American male also living with bipolar, Reginald Thomas, was killed in the custody of the Pasadena Police. In Sacramento, a homeless man, Joseph Mann, was living with a mental condition when he was killed by police officers. The criminalization and policing of mental illness does not only bereft persons of color, but in 2011 a white homeless male living on the streets with schizophrenia, Kelly Thomas, was beaten to death by six Fullerton police officers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2014 one in five American adults experienced a mental health issue; one in 10 young people experienced a period of major depression and one in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness. Considering the magnitude of people living with a mental health condition and the volume of police killings of people in mental health crises, we must dutifully work to scrutinize and dismantle the criminalization and policing of mental health.
Police officers need better training to effectively deescalate hostile situations with persons in a mental health crisis. In a report, The Mental Illness Revolving Door: A Problem for Police, Hospitals, and the Health Care Agency, it states that, “Crisis intervention and stabilization of the severely mentally ill often begins with the police officer on patrol. The triage conducted at that point—in the field—is critical, and, as society has witnessed recently, can lead to violent and even deadly results. It is crucial for officers to have the proper training, tools, and resources at their disposal to help the mentally ill deal with their demons and, with respect to some suffering from mental illness, control their homicidal or suicidal impulses.” People are struggling to live with mental health conditions and need treatment. Instead their lives are threatened by a carceral state of law and order policing.
This is why the election of Donald John Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America matters. It matters that he ran a campaign engendering hate, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and enabled the appointment of Steve Bannon, a man celebrated by the white nationalist movement, to serve as chief strategist and senior adviser. Consequently, non-White people are not safe. It matters that the President-elect mantles his patriarchal ideals from a pissing contest of penis size to the groping of and sexual assault of women. Consequently, our mothers and daughters are not safe. It matters that he supports xenophobic agendas to “make America great again.” Consequently, the Mexican, muslim, migrant and marginalized are not safe. It matters that he wants to reenforce draconian punishment through a “Law and Order” regime that restores stop and frisk tactics, revitalizes a war on black people and proliferates a prison industrial complex where black women are the fastest growing population. Consequently, Michelle Shirley — a black woman was not safe and neither are we. The criminalization and policing of mental health is worsened by a society that elects a man who both embodies and signifies a disdain for people and policies who do not represent normative narratives and dominant ideals of privilege and power. De-facto, the public safety concern here is not one of law and order but of living safe as a black woman in America. Michelle Shirley should be alive. Fascist demoralizing ideals of exceptionalism, however, should die and remain buried in the pits of nothingness forever. Michelle Shirley’s life mattered and we all — regardless of our condition — deserve security in a more just democracy.