Before I was placed in the backseat of a police car, I could see the first officer reflecting inwardly whether or not I needed to be cuffed. The second believed I was benign and I spoke to him non-stop on the twenty minute ride from home to the hospital. He doubted I was a harm to anyone but myself. I remember asking him if I was under arrest. "Technically," he said. No charges would be filed, but I had no say over where I was headed. My parents had exercised their last resort, making a telephone call to put the involuntary petition into force.
Since then, I wince inwardly when I pass a police car, afraid they are after me again. I live a block from a police station, a fact that usually makes people feel safer, not the reverse. My parents exercised the final option at their disposal, activating a legal method to have me committed to a psychiatric institution against my will. Back then, I was talking out of my head, just coherent enough to be understood. I spent three weeks in the hospital, emerging sane and clear-headed prior to discharge, but the traumatic memory of my departure from home has never left me.
This morning I read a tragic story about a young woman with bipolar disorder who was shot dead by police. Lest anyone coin a hashtag called #crazylivesmatter, fault is difficult to discern in this instance.
Kristiana Coignard walked into the lobby of an east Texas police station last month with a knife in her waistband and “I have a gun” written on her hand. After asking for help, she instigated a scuffle with police officers that ended in her shooting death. A few days later, police released a security video of the encounter as proof that the officers who shot Coignard were justified in doing so. She was 17 years old.
She also, according to her aunt, Heather Robertson, had been struggling with depression and bipolar disorder for much of her life. Robertson told ThinkProgress that two separate suicide attempts had landed her niece in the hospital in recent years but that Coignard had been keeping up with regular therapy and medication since December, when she came to live with her aunt in Longview, Texas.
I'd had to retreat to my parent's house, the last refuge when all other options have been extinguished. Mania gives one a deceptive sense of power and perception. At first, one seems superhuman, but this episode progressed from what is called a euphoric mania to a dysphoric one. I've struggled with a diagnosed anxiety disorder my whole life, and mania made me afraid of nothing. I could look people in the eye without flinching, without dropping my neck slightly, overwhelmed with fear and discomfort.
In support groups, I've known people who, in psychotic episodes, have become so paranoid that they've shot up their own homes. One person in particular reduced his front door to pieces with a loaded shotgun. It is fortunate for me that I felt no compulsion towards physical violence in any form. Prior to the arrival of the police, I'd wanted to play an open mic set somewhere downtown. My parents had insisted instead that I take a strong dose of an antipsychotic. I knew the medication would have made me drowsy enough to prevent me from playing, so I resisted.
I'm a mostly peaceful person. It's difficult for me to hold anger inside long enough to start a fight or some sort of lasting hostility. In my life, I've been in two or three fights, but I must admit I don't really have much heart for it. Once I tried to motivate myself enough to beat up the jealous ex-boyfriend of my girlfriend, who had been meddling in our affairs. I walked to the door of his apartment, knocked aggressively, and waited. He never showed and I left, frustrated, five minutes later.
By the time I was headed back to my car, the anger had left. It's fortunate that I am a large person with broad shoulders, registering slightly over six feet tall. I haven't had to start an altercation, which I know might have easily backfired on me. Now I'm a member of a pacifist faith group, where non-violent resolutions to crises are expected and preferred. That doesn't mean that people don't fight with one another intellectually, with words and gestures, which only goes to prove that violence takes many forms.
Coignard’s story is as tragic as it is tragically unexceptional. In fact, the recently peaked public interest in police brutality seems to have revealed Americans with mental illness as the population most vulnerable to excessive or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement.
While there is no official data on police shootings in the U.S., last year more than a dozen encounters between police and mentally ill civilians ended with the civilian being fatally shot—and those are just the deaths that made the news. This does not include situations in which the victim had a gun. In these cases, the person killed was either unarmed or wielding a weapon that would be no match against a cop with a firearm, like a screwdriver, a baseball bat, or a knife.
I don't own a car, so I take public transportation everywhere. Almost every day, I encounter a severely mentally ill person who is often homeless as well. The unmedicated schizophrenic who talks to himself is a routine occurrence. Though this is rare, mentally ill riders have responded angrily, lashing out for reasons only they understand. One of them demanded to be let off the bus immediately, a request that was granted, if only to immediately remove the risk to the driver and the other passengers.
A vast amount of misunderstanding is present in situations like these. Fear is present in equal quantities as disgust and pity. I was one of the lucky ones. Raised middle class, I was treated immediately after symptoms presented themselves. My father had specialized training to manage those with mental illness. I was raised in a family that treated my illness without shame, knowing I was merely unwell. The bus people I sit across from have not had those sorts of advantages.
It’s a relationship that Cochran has been working for over 25 years to improve. Back in 1987, when he was a lieutenant in the Memphis Police Department, Cochran was nominated to coordinate a community task force following the shooting death of a mentally ill man by officers who’d responded to emergency calls from the man’s family.
From that task force came the creation of what is now known as the Memphis Police Services Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, model. Part of the model is a 40-hour specialized training for police officers responding to emergency calls about people with mental illness. The other part involves partnerships between law enforcement, the mental health community, and advocacy groups.
Approximately 2,700 U.S. police departments have implemented the CIT model since it was first created in Memphis. And Cochran, who retired from the Memphis Police Department after 30 years of service, travels the country helping other law enforcement agencies execute his program.
Though this may be slightly cliché, mental illness is everyone's problem. A young white woman would seem like the least likely candidate for brute police force, and yet she lost her life. Though I could be justifiably indignant that a mentally ill person of color or a sexual minority has likely died due to aggressive police intervention, in this instance, whatever makes positive change is helpful to everyone.