Cops and Community Bond is Key

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

This past month saw several deadly encounters between police and unarmed civilians, including the highly controversial death in Minneapolis of Jamar Clark and the shooting by police in Opa-Locka, Fla., of Cornelius Brown.

While there are, throughout the country, many points of serious disagreement between citizen protesters and police supporters, the death of Brown, as with the death of Donald “Dontay” Ivy in April in Albany, highlights one area on which agreement should be easy.

There have been 146 killings by police of unarmed civilians so far this year, according to The StreetCred Police Killings in Context database my company compiles. Brown, a 25-year-old black man, was one of 13 decedents (9 percent) who had a prior diagnosis of severe mental illness. Ivy, a 39-year old black male, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

All events are different. Ivy’s case has many elements in common with those of other mentally ill people who have died after encounters with police. Surviving family members are often highly frustrated with answers they get. They feel hopeless and angry, and fear their sorrow can’t stop this happening to others.

And even when they are cleared, officers look back on these incidents and can see where more information might have helped, but as the Albany grand jury found, given the information they had at the time, the fear these officers felt precipitated action.

The PKIC data does provide in the case of the mentally ill some very clear and actionable guidance for citizens, protesters, spiritual leaders, law enforcement agencies and officers. Because of school shootings, mental illness has gained new media attention in America. But the emphasis there has been on seeking to identify the mentally ill to prevent their purchases of guns.

Those are missed opportunities to save lives: in all, 13 of the PKIC cases in point, the family told authorities of the existing psychiatric diagnosis and witnesses confirmed friends and neighbors knew about it long before the deadly encounter.

We as a community should proactively work to ensure those who suffer from mental illness get support to avert confusing situations that officers might legitimately view as serious threats. For example, family members say Cornelius Brown in Florida often carried a broomstick — and a witness reported Brown was carrying, “Some type of stick or crowbar,” when he confronted the police. That kind of context could mean everything — had one of the officers known Cornelius, this tragedy might have been averted.

Policing works better when the cops and the community know each other. Family members should reach out to community officers and introduce them to mentally ill relatives. Spiritual leaders, activists and neighbors who know such families should help make these introductions. Let’s not wait until something happens. All sides should seek ways to familiarize officers with those who, like Brown and Ivy, might need more help.

What does success here look like? On a night in the future, during an escalating situation, just one officer who recognizes a mentally ill citizen he’s met before and is thus able to safely de-escalate is an event after which everyone goes home safely. Everyone wants that. The path is right in front of us.