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 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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