Unless you have been living under a rock since 2012, then you would know that there has been a ton of news coverage around Black men being the targets of multiple police shootings across the United States. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Anthony Robinson. Naeschylus Vinzant… amongst many others. But most recently, Anthony Hill died at a police officer’s hands Monday afternoon in Atlanta when someone in Hill’s apartment complex called 911 reporting “a man was acting deranged, knocking on doors, and crawling around on the ground naked” (HuffPost Black Voices).
According to Anthony Hill’s social media, he was a 27-year-old Air Force veteran living with bipolar disorder. He accepted it and embraced his condition fully as you can see below:
The New York Times reported that Anthony Hill was unarmed, however, the justification behind why he was shot dead was because Hill was running towards the officer and refused to obey commands. My article today is not a discussion of the actually shooting itself, but about how the police officer could have responded differently.
Identifying the Situation As A Mental Health Crisis
My frustration stems from this officer being too preoccupied with trying to be a hero and failing to acknowledge the symptoms of a bipolar episode. The first thing I scratched my head in confusion about was why wasn’t mental first aid performed (also called psychological first aid)? That should have been first and foremost.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by manic and depressive episodes, or sometimes only manic episodes. It is unclear what type of bipolar disorder Hill was suffering from, but his behaviour can suggest he was having a manic episode (symptomatic of many mental illnesses) requiring urgent and immediate care. The main goals of mental first aid are to:
- Preserve life
- Prevent deterioration of injury or illness
- Promote healing
- Provide comfort to the ill or injured
If only the officer that was called to the scene was competent enough to realize his role in the situation was to save Anthony Hill’s life! Along with providing comfort until a psychiatric professional was available to intervene and heal Hill from his manic episode.
Calling For Appropriate, Case-Specific Assistance
Next, the officer at the scene should have called for back-up… not more cops with loaded guns, but REAL professional back-up such as a psychiatrist or a paramedic team.
I believe that any community worker that practices within the scope of sociology and psychology, such as a social worker, psychiatric nurse, or paramedics would have been easy to access and assist Hill through his manic episode. Police officers are first responders, so any back-up that could arrive at the scene in seven minutes or less would have been a great help and possibly saved Anthony Hill from his death.
While not every unarmed Black male shooting is within the context of mental illness, can we agree that a person without a weapon can be classified as harmless or non-threatening? Police officers are trained to diffuse situations such as these, especially if the person is a harm to themselves. Police officers are meant to be liaisons between the “person in harm or danger” and providing “access to professional help or a safe environment”.
There is a significant gap in current research that shows the role of a psychiatrist treating a mentally ill patient following a police report. I am uncertain whether this type of medical professional is a realistic request for these types of situations but community workers would definitely have an impact assisting police with comforting victims and transporting them to safety.
Mental Health and Law Enforcement: More Collaboration is Required
A journal entry published in the Psychiatry Journal titled, “The Police and Mental Health” share some enlightening background research regarding the jobs of police officers:
- “With respect to persons with mental illness, police in all states have the power to transport persons for psychiatric evaluation and treatment when there is probable cause to think that they are a danger to themselves or to others because of their mental condition.”
- “They are responsible for either recognizing the need for treatment for an individual with mental illness and connecting the person with the proper treatment resources or making the determination that the individual’s illegal activity is the primary concern and that the person should be arrested.”
- “There is evidence that police training generally is inadequate to prepare police officers to identify and deal with persons with mental illness and they want to know how to recognize mental illness, how to deal with psychotic behaviour, how to handle violence or potential violence among these persons, what to do when a person is threatening suicide, and when to call the specialized mobile crisis team.”
These statements, along with the rest of this article, indicate that police officers are meant to have the responsibility to assess, intervene, and evaluate altercations involving mentally ill persons, but police training does not emphasize the skills to do so. The only defence I can make for the officer who shot Anthony Hill is that even if he wanted to help save his life and diffuse the situation, he didn’t know how. Pulling a trigger was definitely not the answer and I think that was the only way he was taught to handle intense circumstances. Law enforcement has to work closely with mental health agencies to ensure they are educated about handling mentally ill civilians appropriately (according to the standards of mental health first aid training organizations).
This story should upset everyone; not only because he was an unarmed Black man, not only because he was mentally ill, but because mental illness remains a stigma within our society. Even when mental illness is brought into criminal justice, it is often used to get a criminal off with more lenient charges. This has been openly displayed in the media when the criminals are White men who have killed a mass of people. Their mental illness justifies their actions more or less and the jury sympathizes with them. But when the same context applies to a Black man (Anthony Hill) who is the actual victim, harmless to everyone except themselves, AND unarmed— they are an automatic threat to everyone around.
Racial tension has been making news headlines and inspiring many social justice campaigns via social media these past few years. It has more people questioning whether racism ever ended and creates a new dialogue for the current generation of activists. The topic has started to wear on me because it constantly reminds me how unjust our society is and how easy it is for officers to get away with their crimes. We should be using Anthony Hill’s story to evaluate and critique the training of civil servants and demand that new, comprehensive mental health training become part of their occupations. After all, it is their duty is to serve and protect everyone, and that includes Black people, and the mentally ill.