“Lucky I don’t shoot you,” said the man standing over me in my garage.
He’d already brought me to the ground and I was lying face down trying to do what he was saying to me. Well, trying to understand what he was yelling at me.
I’d been walking my dogs that night, late, and after a long day I felt very tired. The dogs were sniffing at some overgrown bushes outside my house, and then, in the corner of my eye, I saw something move. Things looked blurred without my glasses but in the darkness I glimpsed a figure. He was dressed in black, hood over his eyes, and coming directly at me on the sidewalk. The street lay empty and the sidewalk was narrow and the faceless man continued charging right toward me. I flashed back to the time another man approached me on a dark sidewalk. I flashed to the time the man chased me and grabbed me and then sexually assaulted me. I relived that terror and helplessness and in that moment I decided to do whatever it took to protect myself from future harm. I refused to be another victim.
The figure in black was right there, taller than me and so close I could touch him. Why was he so close? Was this an ambush? I brought the knife I’d been using earlier in the day up toward his face so he could see that I happened to be armed. I held it flat, blade up but pointed away to the side. He grabbed my wrist. He struggled for the knife. Both of us stood locked together but his animal power made it difficult for me to break free of him. I lunged to throw him off.
“Get away from me,” I shouted.
As he retreated I went to find the dogs. They’d wandered down the block and into the midnight. I folded the knife and put it away. The figure in black walked the other way. He went to the end of the block, and under a lonely streetlight he collapsed onto the curb, crying. His mother drove up and found him there. Then she called the cops. The figure charging toward me in the dark was really a teenaged boy. Between his sobs he told the cops I tried to kill him. When I got back to the garage with my dogs a cop followed me inside. I stood there while he shouted. I tried to understand what was happening. First, he used his Taser on me and then the cop drew his gun. That's when he said I was lucky. Electrocuted and on the ground and empty handed, I was very close to being killed for having my PTSD flashback.
Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, wasn’t so lucky. On Sunday, June 18, two Seattle police officers shot Lyles after responding to her 911 call concerning a suspected burglary. Lyles, who was 5’3” and 110 lbs, had just returned to her apartment at a transitional living facility. She had a history of altercations with police and mental health issues. As recently as June 5 she was booked into King County Jail stemming from another of her calls to police. She was seeking protection against her boyfriend but instead Lyles was booked into jail on charges of obstruction and harassment. She spent two weeks in incarceration on these charges. At no time during her stay in custody was she provided with any mental health treatment or assessment at Seattle’s Harborview facility. She was released from jail on June 14 and four days later, shot and killed in front of her children by Seattle police.
Lyles’ case is indicative of the deep seated problems we have concerning mental health, poverty and race in this country. The New York Times has a brilliant piece deconstructing the 60 year shift away from providing public mental health treatments to presuming every offender is criminal and incarcerating all of them. Public policy and a decades-long shift away from providing accessible mental health resources has rendered mental illness a crime. People suffering mental illness are self-medicating in lieu of access to community resources and when a crisis occurs they are incarcerated or shot. I was lucky. I only went to jail. But I’d likely be dead if the cops could justify killing a white suburban homeowner as easily as they can excuse the killing of impoverished black people. And as long as the public continues to accept it.
Of two officers that responded to Lyles’ call that morning neither had a Taser. One was never issued a non-lethal weapon and the other said his Taser ran out of batteries two weeks back. He’d been storing it in his locker since. Despite the call for her to be Tasered at the scene both officers open fire on her as that was the only option they’d left themselves.
When members of the community dared to question officers’ response the Seattle chief of police issues an immediate statement saying, “facts matter and prejudgment of this incident by any of us would be completely irresponsible.” Which is odd to hear. Incarcerating a young mother for two weeks on charges of harassment isn’t called out as completely irresponsible. Denying a mentally ill prisoner any mental health screening or treatment isn’t labeled completely irresponsible. Questioning whether or not Charleena Lyles should’ve been shot dead by police in front of her children is completely irresponsible.
Police have a tremendously difficult duty to perform but it’s also one they accept when they take the oath. Their job should not have to include mental health counseling but sadly we’ve left that to the front line responders, too. The police are doing what we've abandoned, public funding of mental health needs. As a result, we have a serious mental health crisis intersecting with a police use of force crisis. The ongoing criminalization of mental illness and police shootings are not going to stop until we address the underlying mental health factor.
The huge mental health crisis in this country is easily evidenced by the staggering quantity of antidepressants being prescribed by general practitioners and the burgeoning opioid epidemic. Add to that the individuals suffering an acute mental health issue who are jailed or killed because of the lack of services. This crises will not abate by continuing to ignore these issues or blaming the victims through a policy of mass incarceration and killings.