Killing people to save them

During the Vietnam war, an American major said after the destruction of the Vietnamese village Ben Tre that “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” That macabre statement grimly captured the senselessness of war in general and the Vietnam conflict in particular, as the US laid waste to that country ostensibly to save it from Communism, but in reality for a complex of reasons that it was unwilling to explicitly acknowledge.

A similar statement can be applied to the way that the police in the US respond to calls that suggest that someone has suicidal thoughts. Police with guns drawn broke into the apartment of Chelsea Manning for what is called a “wellness check” after they received a call from someone that she had posted tweets that suggested suicidal thoughts. Fortunately for Manning, she was not at home (she was out of the country) or she might have been shot dead. Here is video footage from security cameras that show the police entering the apartment.

Micah Lee and Alice Speri say that the killing of suicidal people happens far too frequently.

The problem, mental health experts say, is that police should not be the ones to check on suicidal people in the first place. In 2017, mental illness played a role in a quarter of 987 police killings, according to a tally by the Washington Post. People of color experiencing mental health crises are particularly at risk.

In 2018 alone, police have shot and killed at least 64 people who were suicidal or had other mental health issues, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “This January, Alejandro Valdez was suicidal and threatening to kill himself. The police shot and killed him,” Susan Mizner, the group’s disability counsel, wrote in a recent post. “In February, Orbel Nazarians was suicidal and threatening himself with a knife. The police shot and killed him. In March, Jihad Merrick was suicidal and pointing a gun at his head. The police shot and killed him. In April, Benjamin Evans was making suicidal comments. Police shot and killed him.”

“There is absolutely no excuse for sending armed police to the home of someone who is having a suicidal episode,” said Cassandra. “As we’ve seen countless times, cops know that no matter what happens, they will be shielded from any accountability whatsoever.”

“It’s not necessary for police to be the first responders when somebody calls 911 and says they’re suicidal,” said Carl Takei, a senior ACLU attorney focusing on policing, in an interview. “In the same way that if I were to call 911 and say I’m having a heart attack, I would expect a medical response. As a society, we should expect a mental health response when somebody calls 911 and says they are suicidal, rather than dispatching somebody who is armed with a pistol and most of whose training is directed at enforcing criminal law and how to use force with people whom they suspect are breaking the law.”

Why are armed police the only people sent in response to a fear of suicide, without any health professionals or even a friend or family member there to help defuse the situation? Because this is America where far too many people seem to think that any problem requires the use of guns to resolve it. It does not seem to strike them that many other countries have suicidal people too and yet they are not shot as a result.


  1. alkaloid says

    “Because this is America where far too many people seem to think that any problem requires the use of guns to resolve it. ”

    This is a systemic failing even more than the beliefs of specific people. There’s a good book about this I’m reading called “The End of Policing” by Alec Vitale. One point that he brings up is that the system essentially was designed so that police, not mental health professionals, not even EMT’s in some drastically awful cases, are basically seen and promoted as the only responders and they’re clearly not suitable for such in an overwhelming majority of cases.

    As another example, in New York state a black man named Chamberlain had heart trouble and was panicking. He called 911 for help and the police arrived. After he was assaulted and multiple racist epithets delivered against him he was dead minutes after they arrived.

    Unsurprisingly, no charges were filed against his murderers. “Even” by the Obama administration.

  2. Allison says

    The NY State incident was Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a retired marine, in White Plains (just down the road from me.)

    He didn’t call 911, his medical alert bracelet did. The police came by, he told them to go away, they broke in. They say he came after them, so they killed him.

    According to the Chief of Police of the city of White Plains, the officers followed departmental procedures.


  3. robert79 says

    “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

    I may be wrong, but I seem to remember reading nearly the exact quote from an account of the first world war, years (decades?) ago. Either on the Belgian-German, or the French-German front, the continued digging of trenches, artillery fire, shifting of trenches, etc… resulted in a village getting destroyed as both sides tried to save/conquer it.

    Unfortunately googling it now only results in vietnam war stories.

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    There have been multiple coroner’s inquiries here in Toronto over pretty much exactly this subject. It is, unfortunately, not solely a U.S. thing.

  5. robert79 says

    Re: my post at 4 — I’d like to apologise, I read the title and the first paragraph of this post and responded on a (possible) factual error which had nothing to with the further intent of the article. It was not my meaning to derail the discussion.

  6. Quirky says

    “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

    It became necessary to destroy the rights of the Southern free states and their peoples including free suffrage in order to save them and the constitution of the greater nation.

    Law of necessity = = = Necessity knows no law.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 Jenora Feuer
    Calling the police when a person is mentally ill seems the easiest/fastest way to get someone shot by the police in Canada.
    Alok Mukherjee, in an interview on CBC discussing his new book with Tim Harper, Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing , made this point very strongly.

    The book is on my list to read; its themes are likely to apply in any Canadian city.

    I remember someone telling the story of when he called 911 to report “Harry” was screaming and doing his normal striptease in the hall of the apartment building. More or less a regular call and he assured the 911 operator that it was just “Harry”, whom the dispatchers and police know well.

    To his surprise, something like 8 heavily armed officers showed up. Someone could have gotten hurt.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    many other countries have suicidal people too

    Yes, but in most of those countries the chances of them having a handgun are WAY smaller.

    Scott Adams joked decades ago that the only capital crime should be threatening suicide. But that was a joke.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Lenora @#5 and jrkideau @#8,

    Whenever I hear horror stories like this occurring in Canada, It almost invariably involves Toronto police. Are they particularly bad or is excessive police force a general feature in Canada too and the Toronto ones are the most likely to be reported because it is the largest city and thus in the sights of the media?

  10. Heidi Nemeth says

    If a person is suicidal and refuses treatment, getting them involuntarily committed requires police intervention.

    One in ten suicide victims has killed another human before taking their own life. (US statistics?) It is no wonder police consider suicidal people dangerous. With high rates of gun ownership it seems prudent the police arrive armed and protected (guns drawn).

  11. says

    The police are a gang of thugs. Never talk to the police, ever. Even if they are out of uniform and off duty. Walk away from them. Never call the police and never trust the police to do the right thing. Blue lives do not matter.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    If you’re robbed, suck it up.

    If you’re raped, get the fuck over it.

    If you’re assaulted, well, tough.

    What excellent advice.

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