In various different leftist calls for policy changes to policing, you’ll hear people discussing mental health. Remember: the “crisis” part of a mental health crisis is the context.

Back where I went to university, the police recently used a man with mental health issues as a pawn in a prank on their colleagues. I’m picking this example for a few reasons: I have some minor personal connections to it (just the location and some personal connections to local first responders), it’s not excessively heavy, and it’s patently obvious that there was only a problem in this particular situation because somebody decided to make it a problem. This is a story about someone who experienced a mental health crisis, and it was only a crisis because some police officers intervened. At net, they made the situation into a crisis.

Say, in Hypothetical Land, ten percent of the population is schizophrenic. Collectively, we’d probably be better at interacting with people with schizophrenia, just out of the sheer amount of additional exposure we’d all have to the same. Watching someone having some sort of mental health issue would be commonplace, and we’d probably be proportionally better at preventing those issues from becoming crises. One city, Geel, actually looks somewhat like this and has seen decent success througout the years. People who live there don’t seem to think that the number of mentally ill people in the area tears their community apart, nor did the people who lived there when the number of mentally ill people who were placed in residents’ homes (for which they are paid a small stipend) was larger.

As Americans, we don’t live in a place where treating mentally ill people like people is a universal norm. The way our policing, medical, and carcereal systems work reflect that lack-of-a-norm.

We all have heard stories of mentally ill people who get violent and create situations that are dangerous for them and/or for others. Dealing with mentally ill people who are acting violent isn’t a simple problem to solve in general. Merely changing policing policy (however you do so) or creating better social programs won’t solve these problems outright–after all, our entire culture holds this lack-of-a-norm about mentally ill people’s personhood, and no simple policy change is going to promptly fix this. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better.

We can’t really trust that police won’t get violent today. Consider the shooting of Charles Kinsey back in 2016. I’ve been framing the discussion here so far in terms of mental illness, but let’s expand the discussion to include autism-spectrum disorders: autistic people can have similar issues to (e.g.) schizophrenic people in all of the ways I’ve touched on so far, and whether or not calling them “mentally ill” is appropriate is a bit outside the topic of this essay.

Kinsey was working as a caretaker for Arnaldo Rios-Soto, an autistic adult, when he was shot by the police. Kinsey was lying on the ground with his hands up, telling the police that the object in Soto’s hand was a toy car and that Soto wasn’t a threat. Jonathan Aledda, a SWAT officer, claims he was aiming at Rios-Soto as he shot Kinsey in the leg. Kinsey was then handcuffed and left bleeding on the pavement for the 20 minutes it took for an ambulance to arrive. Fortunately, Kinsey survived.

generalisation based on anecdotal evidence: on hearing that an armed person shot an unarmed person, with no other information, people from the US seem more inclined, as a group, to wonder why the unarmed person did something to get themselves shot, than why the shooter fired


(As a quick aside, the issues in this story neither begin nor end at policing. As of October 2019, Rios-Soto was set to be evicted from his group home, due to a budget reduction.)

Stories like this happen far too often: an officer responds to a situation that never really needed people with guns and perhaps “Killology” training to be present, and someone gets hurt for no reason. Police shout orders at people who aren’t capable of complying, and claim they’re the victims when things go wrong. And sometimes they use other humans as their puppets in elaborate pranks. Who’s going to stop them? They’re the law.

No part of this essay should indicate to you that police officers are incapable of doing the right thing. Plenty of them de-escalate situations and react in skilled, moral fashions around people every day. Neither of those facts mean that it should be their job to respond to these situations first–or even necessarily at all. The crisis is the context, and we can do a better job of ensuring that these contexts treat people like people.