TW: Police violence, suicide, gun violence
Police are not equipped to help our community experiencing mental health crises
Able South Carolina recently learned of an incident of police violence in York County affecting a member of the disability community experiencing a mental health crisis. Following a call of desperation to the police, requesting help for a young man contemplating suicide, dash camera footage shows multiple officers from multiple vehicles. Dressed in Kevlar vests, the officers quickly exit their vehicles with guns drawn and immediately begin shooting at the young man inside a pickup truck. Fifty shots are fired in his direction with no consideration for his safety or that of his mother, who was at the window of the vehicle, attempting to console him during the crisis. In the hail of gunfire, this young man was struck 9 times by bullets fired with the intention of killing him. The footage shows officers reloading and quickly approaching the pickup after the mother had run to the side to flee the shower of bullets that penetrated the truck and her son’s body.
The incident was a welfare check that police chose to escalate to a potentially deadly shooting because of this victim’s history and bias toward individuals like him experiencing mental health crises. While the victim, Trevor Mullinax, survived, he is scarred by the memory that in a time of crisis, when he needed help and support, a biased system attempted execution rather than intervention.
As people with disabilities, we ask, how many times must we respond to this same story? According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, in the United States, it is estimated that 35 to 50% of police use of force incidents occur against people with disabilities. 50% of people killed by US law enforcement are disabled. Police violence against people experiencing mental health distress or other disabilities is so frequent it’s starting to feel like an expected segment of the nightly news. At Able SC, we did not have to search far in our files to find other times in recent history when we have responded to this kind of violence against members of our community.
Research from the American Psychological Association tells us that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence. The assumption that someone experiencing a mental health crisis will be violent is dangerous. This popular “lie” leads to the stigma and bias that caused Trevor to be victimized by police violence.
This dehumanization of people seeking help in times of extreme mental health distress must end. It is deadly and traumatic for our disabled population and the families and friends that love and care for us. Our state’s systems are not equipped to meet our mental health needs. The lack of affordable and accessible mental health resources leads to more mental health crises, leaving many to believe that the only available solution is the police.
Our police are not equipped to help our community experiencing mental health crises. Our state refuses to study and understand how police use of force is a disability justice issue impacting every neighborhood. As long as militarized and biased police remain the only line for help, these incidents will continue to occur. We continue to be an afterthought in the value of human life.
If you or a family member is in need of assistance during a mental health crisis, we ask that you consider trained mental health professionals as your first option. There are alternatives.
1. Call 988 for help. 988 is a nationwide hotline, available 24/7 for assistance with emotional or suicidal distress. There is no charge to call 988. The 988 hotline in South Carolina will only contact emergency officials if a life is in imminent danger, and even then, consent is requested.
2. Each county in South Carolina has a mental health center offering treatment to those in need. Crisis services are available on a walk-in basis. To locate your closest mental health center, call the South Carolina Department of Mental Health at 803.898.8581 or visit their website.
3. We recognize the reality that people will continue to call law enforcement during times of crisis. If law enforcement is to be involved, please request an officer or team that has received Crisis Intervention Training. Crisis Intervention Training encourages de-escalation and recognizes people who may be in a crisis. This could mean they will be less likely to use violence or aggression toward an individual experiencing mental distress. In the case of a medical emergency, please call 911, as emergency medical services are alerted using this system.
4. Please contact Able SC if we can help give you tips when interacting with police. There are resources available to help, including “Interacting with Police If You Have a Disability,” from the Police Brutality Center.
Lawmakers, it is past time for you to step up to change the system and put an end to this reckless assault on South Carolina’s disabled citizenry. Our police have been led to believe that leaning on mental health distress to predict violence is ok when it is, in fact, more dangerous than making no attempt at policy change. The state must recognize the reality that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by police violence due to ableist bias and the choice to defund services that save lives. It is time to work. It is time to make a change that will keep our disabled community safe. It is time to recognize that we deserve to live.