LAPD shooting of mentally ill black man reflects deeper policy issues

Around 12 p.m. on Sunday, March 1 in the Skid Row section of downtown Los Angeles, three police officers shot and killed an unarmed 39-year-old homeless man.

The incident was recorded from multiple vantage points that included bystanders with their cell phones, security cameras and police body cameras. Footage of the shooting went viral after one of the cell phone videos was uploaded to Facebook; it has been viewed millions of times. So far, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has refused to make the video footage from the body cameras public. The identities of the officers involved have yet to be released.

Initially identified on March 3 as Charley Saturmin Robinet, the victim is now thought to have assumed this identity over fifteen years ago to enter the United States. His real name is not yet known for certain.

Known around Skid Row as “Cameroon” to some and “Africa” to others, his death at the hands of the LAPD on Sunday shines light on a section of Los Angeles with one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the United States. On any given day, there are thousands of people living and sleeping in tents in the area.Considered by many to be the site of a mental health crisis, Skid Row is now at the center of a renewed debate about the role of police in intervening with mentally ill individuals and the use of excessive force. As a black, formerly institutionalized, homeless, mentally ill immigrant, Africa’s death fits into a deeper, nationwide pattern of mentally ill people of color being killed by the police.

From Carlos Ocana and Ezzell Ford in Los Angeles to Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee to Kaijeme Powell in St. Louis to Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland, the use of excessive force reflects the widespread failure of police officers to recognize and effectively respond to individuals who exhibit signs of mental illness. Police officers often misinterpret schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as “erratic” or “threatening” behavior, and resort to force as a “defensive” mechanism. These misinterpretations are in no small part due to a lack of training as to how to interact with individuals who are mentally ill.

And, as with many other issues surrounding our criminal justice system, problems arising from this lack of training are exacerbated by implicit racial bias, all too often leading to fatal outcomes.

In Los Angeles on Sunday night, protesters gathered in the pouring rain in Pershing Square to speak out against the death of Africa and demand police accountability.

On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters marched from the site of the shooting to LAPD headquarters and staged a die-in — like a sit-in, but participants lie down to simulate being dead — in front of the building. Many protesters held signs that read “Body Cameras Won’t Stop Police Murders.” Speaking through a megaphone, one black man asserted, “This is modern day lynching, we’re not calling them killings no more.”

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

“I just can’t understand why all those cops couldn’t find a way to grab him, pick him up, do anything other than shoot him. I have that question,” another woman added.

It’s a question many across the country have had to ask. In a 2013 report, the National Sheriffs’ Association revealed that “at least half of the people shot and killed by police in the U.S. every year have mental health problems.”

Multiple people who knew Africa, including Ina Murphy and Mecca Harper, pointed out when interviewed by the Los Angeles Times that he had recently been released from a mental health facility after nearly a decade of institutionalization.

Purportedly in the United States under the alias Robinet, Africa was convicted of armed bank robbery in 2000 and was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison. The Times noted that “federal court documents filed when Robinet was imprisoned…said he suffered from unspecified mental health issues.”

According to the Times, in July 2003 while at the Federal Medical Center in Minnesota, a psychiatrist determined that Robinet suffered from “a mental disease…for which he requires treatment.” After initially refusing to be transferred to an in-patient mental health unit in the Minnesota facility, he eventually agreed to be moved into a mental health care facility in January 2005. This chronology lines up with Murphy and Harper’s recollection that Africa told them he had been institutionalized for the past ten years.

Africa’s institutionalization makes him an anomaly in the larger context of American mental health and criminal justice policy. In 2014, prisons were home to 10 times the number of mentally ill Americans as state psychiatric hospitals. That proportion is only likely to worsen: Between 2009 and 2012, states cut $5 billion in mental health services. During the same period, 4,500 public psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated — nearly 10 percent of the total number. As Alternet’s Terrell Jermaine Starr notes, these budget cuts lead to an increase in the number of mentally ill individuals on the street, who “often come in unnecessary contact with cops who aren’t properly trained to deal with them.”

Harper described Africa as “quiet, compassionate, gentle and sincere.” The day that he was shot and killed, she mentioned, Africa had already been bothered by three different people. Harper quoted Africa as often saying that he just “wanted to be left alone.”

Juju, another friend of Africa’s, further contextualized the confrontation that led to his death, explaining that Africa’s problems with the police were nothing new. According to Juju, Africa had gotten in multiple arguments with police officers regarding their orders for him to take down his tent.

On Sunday, just before noon, four police officers approached Africa’s tent and instructed him to exit it. In a news conference Monday night, LAPD Chief Beck explained that that the officers involved in the shooting were part of the Safer Cities Initiative, an LAPD task force specifically focused on Skid Row. Chief Beck added that members of this special task force were “specially trained in dealing with homeless people and mental health issues,” and that some of the involved officers had gone through the LAPD’s “most extensive mental illness training, more than 36 hours of coursework.”

Regardless as to whether their training was effective, the fact that they went through it at all sets them apart from most of our nation’s police force. A report released recently by The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, found that Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs geared toward training police officers to handle mentally ill citizens have been highly successful, but only 10 percent of the nation’s 25,000 police departments currently require the training.

The goal of CIT programs is not only to train officers to protect themselves and the public, but also to train them to protect the person who is in crisis.

That did not happen last Sunday. In video recordings, after Africa refuses to exit his tent, one officer can be seen entering it when a commotion breaks out. Seconds later, Africa breaks away from the police officers and the tent is broken down, and then the situation escalates. Chief Beck asserted in Monday’s press conference that when the first officers approached Africa, he “refused to comply with [their] commands and then began to fight with them.”

In the video footage he can be seen flailing his arms, but was he trying to fight the officers? Was he just trying to escape? Could he have been having a panic attack? Was he claustrophobic and overwhelmed? Could he have been hallucinating? We can only speculate. What we know for sure is that, in a short period of time, the police officers invaded Africa’s space, broke down his tent, crowded around him, tackled him, tased him and then shot him to death.

After one officer tackled him and three others jumped in to help subdue him, one of the cops pulled out a taser and tried to shock Africa. “Drop the gun!” one of the officers then yelled. It’s unclear what this in reference to, considering the fact that no firearms were recovered on or near Africa. Shortly thereafter, three officers fired a total of five gunshots. Paramedics pronounced Africa dead at the scene shortly thereafter.

If the responding officers were trained to deal with homeless people and individuals with mental health issues — as Chief Beck has contended — then what went wrong on Sunday? Why did they crowd around Africa and collapse his tent on him? Why did they use such aggressive force?

Brandon Hill provides insight in his column, “Negrophobia: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and America’s Fear of Black People.” He writes that, “black people, particularly black men, are the group most feared by white adults” and that phobic people “hyperbolize a threat that is not actually present and trip themselves into aggression.” This framing seems to explain what unfolded in front of Africa’s tent on Sunday. The police officers exaggerated the threat that Africa posed to them, and then proceeded to trip themselves into aggression. Their conduct dramatically escalated the situation, and directly contradicted crisis intervention protocols. In short, the crisis that unfolded was one of their own creation.

Chief Beck claims that while on the ground, Africa reached for one of the officer’s guns. But so far this assertion is only supported by subjective interpretation of freeze frames from the video footage. As of yet, there is no substantial evidence that Africa was intentionally trying to gain control of any weapon. Anthony Blackburn, who recorded the incident and the subsequent shooting on his cell phone, alleges that he did not see Africa reach for a police officer’s gun.

On Sunday, Africa was added to a long list of names that has become a rallying cry across the country for radical reform. The next day, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles tweeted: “They killed Africa. We are Africa. They Keep Killing Africa.”

They need to stop.

Andrew Firestone
Andrew Firestone is a freelance researcher and writer, lifelong student of American history, maker of space music and recent graduate of Kenyon College. He writes about topics related to race, culture and police/prison reform. You can follow him on Twitter @ae_firestone.

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  • Dobraya Utka

    “He lunged for my weapon” is becoming more used in police shootings of unarmed individuals, also.
    .

  • Dobraya Utka

    “These misinterpretations are in no small part due to a lack of training as to how to interact with individuals who are mentally ill.”

    Bularkey. There are no misinterpretations. These police officers, very highly trained by the way, either provided or surrendered near-access to a weapon (placed it to where the man might have been able to grasp for it) or they provided themselves with a claim that he grasped at an officer’s weapon, and then one of them shot him, and then at least one other officer backed up the first officer’s shots with his own. It’s a repeated pattern all over the nation among police officers who feel themselves put out in dealing with people they would rather not deal with.

    Someone with access to police-associated violence records would do the nation a favor by studying and reporting on the “he went for my weapon” police beatings and shootings.
    .

  • Police brutality is out of control, I hope to get discussions about what other people think about this on http://ImThePeople.com, which is a new online political forum that is going to change the way we discuss politics. For now we are just a forum, but we are building something that is so much more than the sum of it’s parts. Check it out and start discussing the issues plaguing us today!

  • Don Chandler

    Genghis Khan had nothing to do with Airline Deregulation.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The best perspective on the consistent rate of murders of people of color by cops can be found at Black Agenda Report

    “Obama’s Ferguson Commission a Joke: Why Liberal Proposals and “Solutions” Don’t Cut It – “… The report from Barack Obama’s “Task Force for 21st Century Policing” the official White House response to widespread public disgust at the unpunished police murder of Michael Brown is out. And it contains — wait for it – a lot less than meets the eye.”

    BAR has these proposals to help solve the problem, soluitons which the Democrat and Republican parties will never agree to.

    “Decriminalizing drug use, homelessness, sex work and mental illness, so as to take armed and violent cops out of many of the situations in which they brutalize and murder civilians;

    Removing all financial incentives police departments now have to make low-level drug arrests and ending the use of confiscated assets by police departments;

    Federal legislation to require police departments to report all cases of excessive force against civilians and funding for the Department of Justice to gather and maintain those statistics. Right now the only figures on police killings are assembled by private entities;

    Curbing police and prosecutorial misconduct by means including the establishment of special prosecutors to go after district attorneys and cops;

    Granting automatic reparations in the form of monetary settlements, medical, housing and tuition assistance to the families of the falsely convicted;

    Immediate banning of the imprisonment of juveniles with adults and the swift phasing out of juvenile prisons in favor of healing, educational and therapeutic institutions.

    Instituting meaningful education, self-improvement and skills programs for all those confined in prisons and jails, and decent health care for all those in the nation’s prisons and jails

    Here’s the link: http://blackagendareport.com/node/14704

  • Mike F

    “This is modern day lynching, we’re not calling them killings no more.”

    I can’t honestly say that I disagree with this assessment of not only this murder, but that of others, as well.

    We asked for it, though (Well, not most of us here at AB).

    Tough on crime, excessive penalties for possession of crack, longer jail sentences (with nothing which could even laughably be referred to as “rehabilitation”), three-strikes, turning a blind eye to rampant prison rape and sexual abuse, inhuman behavior by guards, officials, increased militarization of police, absolutely no questioning of police tactics and policies (or else!), the phony and hypocritical “thank you for your service” bromides (itself, in my opinion, a product of the unceasing fealty of pols and average ‘Merkins to LE). I suppose I could go on, but there’s really no point. We’re here, and there is little will on the part of both citizens and pols to reform the courts, or to bring the training and deployment of police to higher standards of professionalism. The police, and to a great extent, our military and our intelligence agencies like things the way they are now, as do most of the wealthy, whose money has bought the legal framework which has made it so.

  • TheOtherHank

    It’s gotten to the point where I assume that a cop yelling “Drop the gun!” has already decided to kill the unarmed person in front of them and is playing to the body camera and any other recording device in range. If the soon-to-be-dead guy actually had a gun the cop wouldn’t be wasting time talking, he’d already be shooting. The shouting allows the cop to use the I was afraid for my life defense. “He reached for his waistband” is used when the cop forgets to shout “Drop the gun.”

  • nicho

    Or even know about it.

  • 2karmanot

    Only when wearing natural fibers and in touch with our inner snark.

  • Tom Tallis

    Ronnie Ray-Gun was all about deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill during his first term as Governor of California (one of the worst, I might add). We’re still paying for his lack of foresight.

  • pricknick

    Sure. It started before reagan. But that dimwitted man put it into overdrive.

  • pricknick

    Thanks for saying what I wanted to.

  • mf_roe

    Airline Dereg was Carter and a guy named Kahn. They started the movement to get government out of the business of routing and scheduling This ultimately lead to the idea that we didn’t need government to protect the public interest in areas where Corporations could make a profit, competition and The Market would. set the balance. The past is so much more complicated if you lived thru it.

  • nicho

    It’s very common to blame things like this (as well as airline deregulation) on Reagan, but it started before. I was involved in the debate over deinstitutionalization in the ’70s. I was writing editorials for a medium-sized newspaper and was against tossing the mentally ill out of hospitals (which were wretched) without having a support system in place to help them. I was called a Nazi. The people in favor of closing the hospitals and putting the mentally ill on the streets were the extreme lefties. In fact, it was the conservatives wanted the hospitals kept open — hence my being called a Nazi.

  • mf_roe

    “When President John F. Kennedy introduced the Community Mental Health
    Act of 1963—in his last address to Congress and his
    last piece of major legislation—he expressed the
    belief that eventually “all but a small portion” of those residing in
    large
    mental institutions could be served in the
    community.1”
    To be fair, state mental hospitals are depressing places, many Dems advocated for a better system. Had JFK lived he might well have made mental health concerns more mainstream. The fist half of the 20th Century mental illness wasn’t something that got much attention, lock them up and forget was how it was done. Yes Repugs wanted to cut costs but Dems wanted a better option than warehousing and went along with community based systems.

  • Prior to the 1980s, the mentally ill were often institutionalized. There were many such facilities across the nation, many state-run, some run by religious groups, and some by private medical companies. By far the most common were the state-run ones, but nearly all of them depended in part on state and federal funding to operate.

    Well, then the Reagan-era GOPers took over with their fetish for privatization and for announcing major ‘reforms’ that required shutting down one way of operating and supposedly starting up and funding another — but they always left off that last part. What was billed as an effort to de-institutionalize mental patients and get them into more home-like halfway house settings quickly devolved into “close the doors, dump them on the street.” People didn’t want halfway houses in their neighborhoods, not with mental patients in them, so even that part was problematic. Previous institutional care may have been substandard and have had ample room for improvement, but it was better than nothing, better than being homeless and not getting any treatment at all. And while the inadequate halfway houses could help some re-integrate with society, there were never enough slots for patients, and this new treatment model ignored the fact there are some who are mentally ill who simply cannot function in the outside world.

    Couple this with the new police state regime where, whatever a cop may do, however unjustified it obviously appears…well, people are going to die. Training is good, but having non-violent and de-escalating methods available doesn’t mean a thing unless the officers on the scene want a non-lethal outcome. What has happened over the last generation is the penalties for failing to achieve peaceful, non-violent arrests have all but disappeared. A cop can arrest someone peacefully…or they can tase the suspect until the person on the ground goes into seizures…or they can shoot to kill. No matter which path they choose, the officers can be assured of not having their decisions questioned, ever. And frankly, shouting “Drop the gun” or whatever — that’s just covering behavior.

  • emjayay

    And here I thought Sonomans spent all their time smoking dope and drinking wine.

  • mf_roe

    OT aren’t you a retired teacher? Can you give me a short take on “Common Core”.

  • 2karmanot

    In our county, Sonoma CA, The murder of mentally ill individuals ‘acting’ strangely or menacingly by cops has become a common place blood sport.

  • mf_roe

    The Soviet Union used mental illness as a excuse to imprison huge numbers of people they found troublesome. Is it a sign of illness if someone becomes enraged by a system set on oppressing that person. Planting a gun at a crime scene is risky for a cop, but swearing “The Perp was acting really strangely, I feared for my life so I had no choice” is just another lie. Cops are ready for confrontation and they understand exactly how to instigate responses in the people they deal with that can be interpreted as hostile.

    Sane or Crazy, Black or White, Straight or Gay, it makes no difference the excuse they use the crime is abuse of power by cops and the inability of the system to punish that abuse.

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