Police and the Mentally Ill
(Column: Ask the Peer Specialists)
Question: My name is Enith Santiago, assistant coordinator for the Western Mass Training Consortium that provides services and runs peer groups for our self-advocacy members. Recently we had a trip to a ball game in New York and our self-advocates were treated very badly, even threatened to be escorted out by the police (which I feel is overdoing it due to the fact that the self-advocates had their staff with them). I just need some direction on how to approach this. Please, I would really appreciate your time.
Samuel Pirro: Was the group, despite the fact that they had staff with them, behaving in a decidedly unruly, belligerent way? Or were they singled out for no good, substantive reason? If the group was behaving badly and senior staff was either unable or unwilling to control the behavior, there isn't much that can be done. On the other hand, if they were singled out unfairly—my experience is that this might have been the case—the best course of action, I think, is to remain very cool and deliberate and calmly request a precise reason why they are being threatened with police action and, then, should the police be summoned, state their case calmly and deliberately to the police. If the police are unreceptive—and, again, my experience is that they very well might be—one should articulate one's grievances in a calm, reasoned way. If one cannot do this, I am not sure that much can be done to redress the situation. Life isn't fair.
Mary Ann Pinkerton: After the fact, it is best to meet with the organizers and representative mental health consumers who were there and find out what happened. Let them rant for a while but stay on the topic and write down or record the incident. What happened? When did it happen? Who was involved and why it happened. Then accept responsibility for what your group did (or did not do) to bring this fiasco to a flash point where the police became involved. Any time a group of mental health consumers need the police, it is a black eye for the rest of us. It is not fair as too many Americans act like buffoons and animals at sports events (but what can you do?).
Control your group and have an articulate calm person approach the police before there is an incident and ask for simple help even though you do not need it.
"We have twenty people in our group and where is the best gate to go into?" "Where are the washrooms?" Go to a male and not a female. Smile! Send the most attractive, well dressed and articulate female you can. Sexist? Yes, and use this to your advantage. Pretend you are in France and have everyone comfortably dressed, but well dressed.
By doing this, the police officer takes on the role of a helper and you would be amazed at how they would rather help than get into a situation where they'll miss the game. Remember that we live in a post 9/11 world where one can be arrested and thrown in jail for no reason at all. Do not threaten to report any policeman unless blood has flowed and I would hesitate, even then. Police stick together and you may need them one day. Get away from a conflicting situation and be thankful that no one was hurt. Learn from this experience and get out there and do it again. Good luck.
Jack Freedman: I’ve generally had a good rapport with the police. I remember when I had a nervous breakdown in a subway station; the transit police were very sensitive to my condition and talked me through the traumatic event while I was on my way to the hospital. If it wasn’t for a kind officer, the situation could have been a lot worse. I used to have this perception that the NYPD was an abusive force, based on the untimely death of Amadou Diallo and the brutality against Abner Louima. However, there are good men and women out there in law enforcement who genuinely want to protect the people, and they deserve the utmost respect from us.
Melissa Farrell: The mentally ill and the police do not always mix. One night I decided not to come home and that worried my parents to the point where they called the cops. I have a history of suicide so they were worried that I’d do something stupid.
I just did not want to deal with my family. It was wrong; I should have called them and told them that I was alright, but I was just so angry. After I found out what happened, I called the cops and told them that I was fine. I was really upset with my family and explained that to the police. I was embarrassed that they had to intervene (unnecessarily) on my behalf, a mental patient’s behalf.
Celeste Macbeth DuBoise: During the summer of 1989, I was self-medicating with a cocaine-addicted schizophrenic who raped me. The police would not write up a report because of his well-known name and the hospital I went to would not take the rape into consideration: all they recognized was a manic psychosis and they medicated me almost to death for ten years with two handfuls of medication each night of that long painful time. For being such an ‘important fellow,’ my rapist was rewarded clemency. I was released from charges of jumping subway turnstiles in the year 2006. They said I did it ‘due to over-medication.’ Some payback!
Paul Chipkin: My wife and I have lived in the throes of profound mental illness for over thirty years. As can be imagined, we’ve seen the police behave well to us and badly to us.
Even in relatively recent times, she has summoned them to our apartment in exasperation and desperation over my behavior. I believe it to be an unfortunate mistake to ‘call the cops’ in order to ‘get even’ or exert control over a person one perceives to be ‘difficult.’ Police should be called when a situation is dangerous—period! So, in these encounters, the officers recognized that she had summoned them unnecessarily and they may well have resented it. Still, I was impressed by what, perhaps, ‘sensitivity training’ had done to help prepare them for such situations. They were careful and handled the emotionally disturbed persons with ‘kid gloves.’ They were competent at reassuring her and diffusing the situation (without taking sides). It was in distinct contrast to the ‘tough-guy cop’ response we elicit by treating them as the ‘enemy.’