After Planned Parenthood Shooting, We Also Need To Talk About Race & Mental Illness
On Monday, Robert Louis Dear, 57, appeared via video feed before a judge in Colorado. He faces a charge of first degree murder related to allegedly storming armed into a Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday, killing three people, and wounding nine others in a five-hour standoff that ended with a "peaceful apprehension" by police officers. Federal agencies are still investigating to determine if they wish to file additional charges in the case. Though officials and some media outlets say the motive behind the crime is unclear, I believe that the circumstances, current social tensions, and past precedent would strongly suggest that man who enters a Planned Parenthood clinic with guns blazing is probably there to advance the "pro-life" agenda and the belief that people involved in abortion care should be punished for providing reproductive health services.
However, there is one thing about the situation that is puzzling: How did an active shooter known to be a clear threat to human life, including the lives of first responders, get out alive, when so many other civilians do not survive encounters with police?
A person of color walking down the street, playing with a toy, raising arms in surrender, or engaging in any number of daily ordinary activities encounters a risk of being shot by police in the modern American landscape, sometimes within seconds of arrival on scene, as in the case of Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by an officer who barely stepped out of his patrol vehicle. This is also a country where the outcome of interactions between mentally ill people and law enforcement is often fatal as well. Mentally ill people are shot when they or their families ask for help, when they're confused by directions from police, when they run from police because they're terrified after seeing their compatriots die in similar encounters. Of the 1,036 and counting people shot by American police this year, the vast majority are people of color and/or mentally ill, many in cases where the victim was not doing anything illegal.
We should be happy that police managed to bring someone into custody without killing him. But it's a bitter victory, because it's a reminder, yet again, that white, "sane" lives matter more to law enforcement officials than those of people of color and mentally ill people, along with those who are both.
But for a white male suspect without a known history of mental illness, a five hour standoff in which a police officer, a veteran, and an unrelated civilian are killed still somehow miraculously manages to end with the safe apprehension of the shooter. This should be a victory for law enforcement — we should be happy that police managed to bring someone into custody without killing him. But it's a bitter victory, because it's a reminder, that the life of a white, "sane" active shooter seems to be comparatively worth more than that of an innocent black child or a mentally ill person in psychiatric crisis, cases where people have committed no violence.
For every man like Dear, brought in alive by police in the wake of a horrific mass shooting even when he posed a huge danger to those around him, scores of civilians who aren't white, or who are known to be mentally ill — or both — die when they're not even doing anything illegal and certainly don't pose a risk to the public. A recent study found, unsurprisingly for those who follow the news, that white males are the biggest domestic terror threat in the United States. White people, notes the FBI, are responsible for far more violent crime — not just terrorism — than other races. But out of every million white people, only 2.64 can expect to be shot by police — in contrast with 6.27 black people.
The question of how it was that police managed to accomplish what should be a standard law enforcement goal by bringing a suspect in safely when they can't even respect the lives of youth on BART platforms proved to be a popular subject on Twitter. People reasonably asked why, in this case, the shooter managed to keep his life, while those committing far lesser acts — walking on the street is hardly a crime — are killed for it. The inescapable parallels of race and interactions with police came up over and over again, as they should have.
This is a conversation that we need to have and, at least with respect to police violence against people of color, have been having very publicly for well over a year. The gross injustice of the disparities in police shootings has been bubbling below the surface for generations, but it's becoming more and more difficult to ignore. This is a conversation we need to be having, as the number of people shot by police annually should be extremely low, involving only cases in which lives of the public are in critical danger — as for example when a terrorist is holed up in a Planned Parenthood clinic.
It's also a conversation that many law enforcement agencies would prefer that we not have, including the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, which called critics discussing the issue "race baiting morons" on a Facebook post that has since been removed.
If being a race baiting moron makes me wrong, I don't want to be right, because the statistics on this one are on my side: in daily interactions with police, some people are far more likely to make it out alive than others. That is unjust, and a grave public wrong that the law enforcement community should be ashamed of, because it reflects poorly on their ability to protect and serve the public. The public includes mentally ill people. It includes people of color. People should not have to fear interactions with police.
It's not just whiteness that allows people to emerge from police encounters unscathed, but also perceived sanity.
Many are surprised to learn the scope of statistics surrounding mental health and police violence, and the fact that people with known or suspected mental health conditions are at extreme risk when dealing with police officers. When officers are provided with specific information about mental health status on a call, it can go wrong very quickly. The incidence of police violence against mentally ill people is on the rise, in part because of cuts to vital mental health programs that put police in the position of being psychiatric first responders, with no training in handling people in mental health crisis.
There's nothing wrong with pointing out that had Dear been a person of color, he would have been carried out of that Planned Parenthood in a body bag.
Roughly half of fatal police shootings nationwide have a mental health component, and tragically, many involve cases in which loved ones have called for help, not realizing that untrained police instead of psychiatric professionals will respond. Some cities are developing specialized crisis intervention teams consisting of trained officers to handle such calls in light of the fact that deep cuts to social services aren't being reversed, but such teams can't be everywhere at once, and mentally ill people pay a high price for it.
Yet, when people see gross disparities like this — a Black child shot by police for playing with a toy gun, a mentally ill woman shot for holding a drill, a white terrorist brought in after a "peaceful surrender" — it's hard to see how one shouldn't be afraid of interactions with police. To see police unions attempting to shut the discussion down is a striking illustration of how much law enforcement doesn't care about engaging with the public on this issue and developing a way of safely diffusing situations in which police interact with the public, whether it be active shooters, traffic stops, responses to medical aid calls, or, you know, hanging out at the neighborhood playground.
There's nothing wrong with pointing out that had Dear been a person of color, he would have been more likely to be carried out of that Planned Parenthood in a body bag. There's nothing wrong with pointing out that had Dear been known to have a history of mental illness (many are already speculating in an attempt to suggest that the only reason white people commit crimes is because they're "mentally unstable"), he would have been more likely to be carried out of that Planned Parenthood in a body bag. There's nothing wrong with pointing out that police would have justified either shooting and likely gotten away with it, with any law enforcement investigation probably ending in the all clear.
There is, however, something wrong with the fact that both of these outcomes would have been so inevitable.