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In the last few months, grand juries have failed to indict in not one, but two high-profile police shootings, in a naked and obvious display of racism and police protectionism. It feels as though cops are above the law, and communities across the country are hurting not just because of the police-related death toll, but because Eric Garner and Michael Brown will never see justice.
Which makes this news item from New Mexico this week heartening and tragic at the same time: Two officers involved in the shooting of James Boyd will be charged with murder and tried later this year. This is the first such indictment in the city in 50 years.
It's heartening because it's about time we saw police officers held accountable for the death of a civilian, but it's also tragic — because police accountability is so unusual that it seems like something remarkable we should celebrate, because there's an obvious racial element in seeing police indicted for the death of a white men but not for the deaths of black men, and because they're probably going to be acquitted anyway.
James Boyd was a homeless and mentally ill man who attempted to camp in the hills surrounding Albuquerque last March when he wasn't able to find accommodations at a shelter. When law enforcement arrived to enforce the city's no-camping laws, he was attacked with "non-lethal" beanbag pellets and flashbang grenades and a police dog, in addition to being shot by Keith Sandy (now retired) and Dominique Perez (working as an administrative assistant pending the outcome of the case) — he was in medical distress at the scene and died later in the hospital. Video taken on scene shows Boyd turning his back on police officers and pleading for mercy.
Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot 26 civilians, and protesters have been steadily demanding police reform. Notably, none of those cases resulted in indictments before this one — this case may have marked a tipping point, perhaps because the Justice Department finally started scrutinizing the department in 2014, noting that "excessive use of force" was an ongoing problem and entering a memorandum of understanding requiring the department to undergo ongoing DOJ oversight.
In a strange way, the case has some parallels with that of Kelly Thomas, also a white mentally ill homeless man, who was beaten to death in front of horrified witnesses in Fullerton in 2011. Thomas' death almost went unremarked in the national media except for the efforts of dedicated citizen journalists, at which point it briefly sparked across the news before flaring out. His story is important not just because it marked a similar instance of a homeless and mentally ill man being shot by police.
His killers were also indicted.
During a preliminary hearing, the officers, who will not be jailed pending their hearing, will be evaluated to determine whether they should be charged with voluntary manslaughter, second degree murder, or first degree murder. Should the district attorney go with the most serious charge, it could be earthshaking for police accountability and the nation, but it's unlikely, not just because police tend to operate under a blue blanket of protection but because it may be difficult to prove malice aforethought.
The preliminary hearing may result in a dismissal altogether — if the DA cannot muster evidence to prove probable cause, the case is over. If she can, the case still faces a rough ride in court, and she will have an uphill battle getting any kind of conviction.
If police can't be convicted of beating a mentally ill man to death in front of witnesses, it seems unlikely that they'll be convicted of murder in a case involving a mentally ill man who was viewed as a "threat" because he carried two small camping knives — even if Sandy referred to Boyd as a "f*&king lunatic" over the police radio and threatened to shoot him, suggesting that he didn't exactly view Boyd's life as particularly valuable.
Half of the people shot by police in the United States are mentally ill. Many are also people of color. Mental illness puts people at an increased risk of homelessness, which makes it difficult to pursue treatment and stay on medications, continue going to therapy, and pursue other treatment modalities. Encounters with mentally ill people often go badly because police are not trained when it comes to handling psychiatric crises, and some are resentful and angry that they're being used as the first line of treatment in a broken mental health system.
A handful of states are starting to retrain their police officers, with Crisis Intervention Teams receiving additional education on how to work with mentally ill suspects to deescalate situations, come to peaceful resolutions, and help people obtain treatment rather than treat them as criminals. Some have even established innovative mental health diversion programs that redirect mentally ill people to treatment programs instead of jailing and imprisoning them. As seen in Fullerton, and Albuquerque, and cities across the U.S., such training is catching on slowly, and in the meantime, mentally ill people are paying the cost.
Police officers in cases like these frequently get a pass on "justified shootings" after internal investigations, and when their cases do go to court, acquittal is the norm. Police officers are rarely found guilty, let alone indicted, and in cases like these, defense attorneys are highly skilled at arguing that a mentally ill suspect posed a mortal threat to police officers. Such defenses often rely heavily on mental illness itself — Thomas, for example, was accused of being "combative" and "belligerent" when witnesses said he was behaving erratically and appeared confused, likely because he was off his medications and was experiencing a break with reality. James Boyd, too, was pretty obviously in crisis.
Few police departments even have guidelines on handling mentally ill people they interact with. While mentally ill people are frequently cast as a danger to the public, the opposite is actually the case. Few mentally ill people commit violent crimes, and they're far more at risk of being brutalized by police.
We must push through radical reforms to the way police officers handle mentally ill people, because the status quo is unacceptable. We must change the framework of accountability for police officers who shoot mentally ill people, ensuring that thorough investigations are conducted and that they are indicted.
But we also need to talk about the intersections between race and mental illness. People of color are more likely to have mental health conditions due to a variety of factors, including the stress of living in a racist society. They are also less likely to have access to treatment, and have good reason to be distrustful of the medical establishment. And they're more likely to be victims of police shootings. Ezell Ford was mentally ill. Dontre Hamilton was mentally ill. Tanisha Anderson was mentally ill. Milton Hall was mentally ill. Kaldrick Donald was mentally ill.
Indictments are far less likely when the victims of police shootings are black. Would Kelly Thomas's and James Boyd's killers have faced murder charges if their victims had been black? Will we see an indictment in the Ezell Ford shooting? Socially, we devalue the lives of mentally ill people — but we devalue the lives of black mentally ill people even more, a bitter intersection of hatred and generations of social attitudes.
We need justice for all victims of police shootings. Period.