Daniel Prude’s killing by police in Rochester, New York, is the nightmare my family avoided when my sister had a psychotic episode nine years ago.
It’s not just the horrific and preventable loss of Mr. Prude’s life that pains me. I wince at the casual cruelty of the officers who encountered him that night, which mirrors our society’s continuing disregard for people with mental illness.
They treated him as less than human, like an “animal,” in the words of Mr. Prude’s daughter Tashyra and his brother Joe. Ms. Prude expresses the feelings common to many of us forced to surrender some control to authorities in the hopes of helping a relative in crisis, saying, “I had no way to be there to comfort him or help him with that kind of situation.”
On Monday, six months after Mr. Prude was killed in March, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren fired her police chief; suspended the city’s attorney and communications director; and invited the U.S. Justice Department and Rochester’s Office of Public Integrity to investigate.
Handcuffed, unarmed and no threat
Footage of Mr. Prude’s death brings me back to my sister’s first and only psychotic break. She’d wandered from our apartment partially clothed. When my father called with those details, I knew that something was grievously wrong with her mental state.
The security guard at our complex brought my sister home with calm compassion and later told my father that his brother had a mental illness. I shudder at what could have happened if police had arrived and escalated the situation by shouting commands she couldn’t comply with in her agitated and confused state.
I didn’t call for an ambulance that day. A mobile crisis unit dispatcher, who said we’d have to wait up to 48 hours for them, warned police would come if we called 911. It took hours to coax Erica into a taxi to the ER. She later fought with hospital staff when they tried to prevent her from leaving. They tied her down in restraints and sedated her. She was hospitalized for three months and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Imagine how differently things might have unfolded for Mr. Prude if officers had begun by asking, “What’s going on? Are you okay? Do you need help?” and offered a blanket. Instead they pointed a Taser and shouted, “Get on the ground.”
At 30 seconds in, an officer grins at the camera. I can’t know what’s running through his mind, but this expression doesn’t suggest the grave concern or threat that necessitates suffocating another human being. Another officer laughs at 3:27. He doesn’t see a family’s son, brother, cousin, nephew and father in distress. He sees a joke.
In an encounter that lasts 10:37 minutes, officers violated the de-escalation principles taught in police crisis intervention training (CIT) of using time and space to calm a situation. It takes only a few brutal, efficient minutes to extinguish a life. “It’s not your guys’ fault,” the paramedic assures the officers (8:56). “You have to keep yourselves safe.”
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I cannot see the threat Mr. Prude posed as he lay handcuffed, unarmed and naked in below-freezing temperatures as light snow fell on his bare back, outnumbered by seven officers. Rochester police, it is your fault, and our society’s failure, every time law enforcement kills a sick person.
We must address the stigma and misconceptions about mental illness and the structural racism baked into policing that fuel stereotypes of Black men as dangerous. We must, as sociologist Rashawn Ray argues, “replant the roots of rotten trees within law enforcement. To deal with rotten roots, America needs to be honest that law enforcement originated from slave patrols meant to capture my descendants who aimed to flee from enslavement.”
Rebuild mental health infrastructure
In the long-term we must divert funds to rebuild our crumbling mental health care infrastructure so that crises don’t escalate in the first place. Police shouldn’t serve as our first-line responders to mental health crises, but this is the broken system we have until we implement expansive medically-informed, non-police systems of mental health response, such as the groundbreaking CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which dispatches teams of medics and mental health workers to provide 24/7 mobile crisis intervention. At minimum we must ensure every officer receives CIT training and the House should pass a bipartisan Senate billto designate 9-8-8 as a national suicide and mental health crisis hotline.
I still struggle to understand my sister’s illness. To educate myself, I attended a 12-week class for family members of a relative with a mental illness through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. My classmates, mostly white, middle and upper-middle class parents of adult children, struggled to navigate a frayed mental health system despite their privileges. We learned to ask for CIT-trained officers if we had to call 911. But several cases in which family members informed police of mental health problems have led to tragic outcomes. Most recently, a Utah mother of a 13-year-old with autism and anxiety called police, asking for a crisis intervention team and mentioning her son’s upset and lack of weapon. Police still shot her son several times.
Psychosis symptoms confound the public and family members like me. But I expect officers who wield guns, weapons and the power to take life to have a finer-tuned knowledge of the increased sensory sensitivity that makes lights seem too bright and noises too loud to someone in a psychotic state. They should understand the memory, attention and concentration problems, sleep deprivation and auditory hallucinations that complicate following commands. Before applying force, they must consider the heightened danger of “less lethal” weapons such as Tasers to the roughly 25% of people with a serious mental illness who also have a substance use disorder.
The patients I met during my own hospitalization for depression and suicidal thoughts almost two decades ago remind me that people with a mental illness have a higher risk of experiencing harm than perpetrating crime. One gentle woman claimed to see God during dinner, as I chatted with a soft-spoken young man who had his stomach pumped after overdosing on Tylenol. Another man jogged down the hall with feces-stained pants. People screamed and cried. I was scared but soon learned that most, if not all, of my fellow sufferers posed more danger to themselves than to others. They were sick like me.
As the pandemic continues, mental health crises will likely increase. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed elevated reporting of worsening mental health, substance abuse and suicidal ideation, and urged prioritizing interventions for at-risk groups including young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with preexisting psychiatric conditions. With no end in sight to the harm for people with mental illness at the hands of law enforcement, distrust and wariness about seeking help will also grow.
Attempting to see the world from another’s eyes requires empathy, compassion and imagination. It’s too late for Daniel Prude, but we can and must do better to preserve the lives of people with mental illness. If we can’t make this leap now, with the pandemic making so many newly aware of their delicate mental health, when? It’s time.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco.