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.