Call for Help and They'll Kill You

On August 10th, 2016, Tony Timpa called 911 from a parking lot in Dallas. He told the dispatchers that he wasn’t well. He was schizophrenic, and depressed, but he hadn’t been taking his medication. He didn’t feel right. He had taken some street drugs—cocaine, it turned out—but they weren’t making him feel better. He needed help.

When police arrived, they pinned Timpa to the ground. In body cam footage, he screams for help, repeating “You’re going to kill me! You’re going to kill me!” until he passes out. The police hold him face down and retrained for nearly fifteen minutes, and joke about Timpa not getting back up. “I don’t want to go to school! Five more minutes mom!” one of them shouts. “It’s time for school — wake up!” says another. They push his limp body around but do not check for a pulse. Later, an autopsy discovers that Timpa died as a result of a drug overdose, brought on by the “stress associated with physical restraint.”

It took three years for the body cam footage of the incident to be released. In the meantime, the police lied about what happened, of course. They claimed Timpa was “aggressive” when they found him. They claimed that they pushed his body around to stop him from “rolling into the road”. They claimed that his death had nothing to do with them. They claimed Timpa was dangerous, and unstable, and that anything they might have done was justified, even merciful. But in July of this year, the bodycam footage finally came out. Now we know that Tony Timpa was murdered by the police, who thought all of this was very funny.

The insane are murdered by police at extraordinary rates. A 2015 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center found that despite making up less than 2% of the American population, those of us with severe mental illness make up between 25% and fully 50% of all people fatally shot by the police. The mentally ill are sixteen times more likely than the average person to be killed during an encounter with law enforcement, the worst rate—by far—of any subcategory of the overall population. If you happen to fall into more than one group of people considered subhuman by cops at the same time — say you’re black, schizophrenic, homeless, and male all at once—then the risk is even higher. And if you’re insane, then your chances of falling into one of those other groups—homeless, unclean, unemployed, on drugs—are higher too. There’s a great deal of talk about the violence that the mentally ill inflict on one another, on the street and in hospitals and in life, the ways that so many of us become both instigators and victims of violence, but I feel safer—and the statistics tells me that I should feel safer—with another lunatic than I do with an armed American cop.

The ordinary line from mainstream mental health advocacy organizations is that police need to be trained in “de-escalation” tactics. They need to learn to recognize the difference between a threat and a person in the midst of a mental health crisis. They need to learn that people suffering from paranoia or delusions will not necessarily respond to instructions or behave predictably or rationally but that they are not doing so out of some criminal disrespect for police orders. You can question whether or not the cops should or even can be trained social workers on top of their training as law enforcement, but, this line of thinking goes, if they were, then there wouldn’t be these kinds of murders.

I have no doubt that widespread mental health crisis training would reduce the number of crazy people shot by cops. But I only think it would reduce it. De-escalation imagines that the typical encounter between the insane and the police involves the insane person acting in a way that isn’t—but which could be interpreted as—erratic or dangerous, and in which the cop in question is acting in good faith. They don’t want to kill a civilian, but sincerely believe in that moment that they’re dealing with a sane but dangerous individual who they have to stop. If only they knew how to recognize the signs of a frightening but non-threatening mental health crisis. If only they had the training to “de-escalate”. But not all—and I suspect not even most—encounters between police and the insane go that way. It is possible, after all, that the mentally ill suspect really is dangerous. Should the police have license to execute them in that case? It is possible too—even likely—that the crazy person isn’t dangerous or behaving dangerously. They’re just weird and loud and disruptive and they get restrained and something happens and—now they’re dead. Finally, it’s possible that the officers aren’t acting in good faith. I don’t think anybody needs much convincing at this point that cops open fire even when their lives, or the lives of others, aren’t in any immediate danger. If they want to shoot, they aren’t doing to de-escalate. If they’re the kind of cop who wants to shoot, that’s what they’re going to do. Remember that the police didn’t find Tony Timpa on their own. Nobody saw him acting strangely and called 911. He called himself. He wasn’t menacing anybody. He wasn’t refusing police orders. He told dispatchers where he was. The police arrived, but they weren’t afraid of him. They laughed about what they were doing. Tony called for help, and they killed him. What’s de-escalation going to do about that?

I’m not terribly afraid of the police being afraid of me. I’m white, and small. I don’t own any weapons and even my worst psychotic episodes have not involved armed threats of violence against officers or anybody else. But I’m afraid of becoming Tony Timpa. I’m afraid that I’ll need help and call the police, or that I’ll need help and somebody else will call the police and I’ll act strangely, or refuse to calm down, or run away, and wind up dead.

I’ve had the police respond to me before. As a teenager and in my early 20s, as my symptoms first began to manifest, I was picked up more than once for disorderly conduct—yelling in the streets, or sleeping on a patch of grass by the sidewalk, or crashing my car. A little over a year ago, I left my apartment convinced that I had to go to California, and I walked 12 miles to the next town over and checked into a hotel under a fake name and waited for the morning bus to come and take me to the airport. My girlfriend and two other friends managed to find me, and when I refused to come with them to the hospital, they called the police. I wasn’t threatening them, or even yelling. I just kept trying to walk or run away. I barely recognized them. I was gone. They did everything right: they explained to the police that I was having a mental health issue. They said I wasn’t armed, and wasn’t dangerous. The police came and confronted me, but it took hours for me to calm down and agree to go to the hospital. I didn’t make a scene—psychosis isn’t like that all the time—but I ran across a freeway onramp in the dark into a ditch in order to escape the officers. I played hide-and-seek with them in a parking structure. When they managed to corner me I just said “I have something important to do, am I breaking the law? I’m just walking. I’m just walking” over and over until they gave up. It worked out in the end, but what if they had been different cops? What if they’d gotten out of their squad car, guns drawn, and I’d made the wrong move? What if they’d cornered me, and I’d tried to push past them, or hit one of them, and they’d shot me? What if, as I ran across the onramp, they’d pursued and tackled me and in the process of restraining me, I’d died on the ground? What if they’d laughed about it? What if they’d thought it was funny to roll me into the road and pretend I was asleep after I said “You’re gonna kill me, you’re gonna kill me”? I am absolutely certain that I will have another encounter with the police some day. I will probably have many. I don’t worry that those police officers won’t be trained in de-escalation. I worry that one of them—and in my whole life it will only ever take one them—just won’t care.

The mentally ill are dangerous sometimes, of course. Sometimes they even push cops, or hit them, or make threats. And cops will tell you that there’s no way to tell the difference between somebody who is actually going to hurt or kill an officer, and somebody who won’t, until they do it. So they’ve gotta protect themselves. They’ve gotta be safe. But I’ve always wondered—when following these cases, or the cases of murdered black civilians, or anybody else gunned down by law enforcement—how safe do police have to be? If there’s a 50% chance that the person in front of them is a real threat, and a 50% chance they’re just crazy, or confused, or didn’t hear the officers’ instructions, why is it that the civilian is always the victim of the cop erring on the side of caution? Police officers chose to be police officers. I’d rather 10 cops hold their fire in error and get killed than one innocent civilian get murdered in error by a nervous cop. The police agreed to take these risks. I didn’t. “If you make an officer nervous, an abundance of caution dictates that you must be shot” wasn’t on any doctor’s paperwork I ever signed. But the truth is, of course, that most of the time, it isn’t that somebody is going to die. Most of the time, it’s that somebody needs help. Maybe they even called for help themselves, desperate and confused in a parking lot somewhere. But instead of getting helped, they got murdered, and their killers laughed and laughed and lied about it for years.