THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: A hail of bullets for the mentally ill

Saheed Vassell’s parents didn’t have to tell the world that he had serious mental challenges. What else would you call someone who stands on a corner with a metal pipe pointing it at a posse of New York police officers?

The far too predictable happened. Vassell was shot dead. He’s the rule, not the exception, when it comes to police handling the mentally challenged on urban streets.

And there are a lot of them that police routinely come in contact with, often violently, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association. Their estimate is that half of those gunned down by police have serious mental health challenges.

A disproportionate number of those slain by police, such as Vassell, are African Americans simply because, in numbers, there are disproportionately more of them. The stark figures tell the depressing tale of the magnitude of mental illness among Americans.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Health, one in five have mild to severe mental challenges each year; also, one in five teens experience a severe mental disorder.

The tale is grimmer for African Americans. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

There isn’t much help for them on those streets because of an agonizing checklist of barriers. One is the gross lack of mental health facilities thanks to President Ronald Reagan-era policies that slashed and burned mental health funding, facilities and programs, and dumped tens of thousands of indigent persons with mental challenges into the streets.

The Republican-controlled Congress has continued its tone-deaf response to the mental health crisis with its paltry funding of treatment facilities and programs. The other barriers are law enforcement and courts hands are tied from making a referral and confinement of a mentally challenged person to treatment facilities, and the wall of fear and denial about mental health, and the stigma attached to mental illness.

This invariably dumps the crisis of how to handle mentally challenged individuals with few resources back into the hands of cops. The Obama administration’s Justice Department recognized the mortal danger of so many mentally challenged persons with nowhere to go but the streets and the challenge this posed to police.

It developed a set of guidelines for police handling of these individuals. The word to police officers in the guidelines was to “move slowly, being careful not to excite the subject” and to “provide reassurance that the police are there to help.”

Some police departments have taken the message that every confrontation with someone who has an obvious mental challenge doesn’t have to end in a hail of bullets. They have a core of specially trained crisis intervention officers and specialists, and even have formed an entire unit of responders that can rush to a scene to diffuse potentially lethal encounters between police and a mentally challenged person.

This has almost certainly saved a lot of lives. However, it’s only a Band Aid approach, since the number of individuals with few resources and family support will more often than not wind up on the streets. When they do, they are more likely to be repeatedly arrested for minor offenses.

The jails are just as woefully underserved and underprepared as most police departments to provide the kind of specialized care and treatment that mentally ill persons require. They are little more than holding pens and revolving doors shuttling those individuals into a cell and then back out to the streets.

There are almost always signs, such as chronic depression, marked personality change, excessive anxieties, prolonged depression, excessive anger, hostility, and the almost standard abuse of alcohol or drugs, that an individual has mental challenges.

They cause major stress and frictions in African-American families trying to cope with a family member who has a severe mental disorder. Vassell was no different and his family angrily and publicly made that clear. But what were they to do?

Without the intervention services available to aid the family, available treatment services, and the funds to pay for them, even if they were available, it didn’t take much to figure that Vassell would be back out on the street and in serious harm’s way. The NYPD says that it has a set of defined protocols and training for dealing with mentally challenged individuals in tense situations on the streets.

The protocols specifically involve training in how to handle calls where there is even the possibility that the suspect may have a mental challenge. Whether it applied those protocols to Vassell before gunning him down will be hotly debated. What’s certain, though, is he is yet another one of the grim number of mentally ill whose final treatment consisted of a hail of police bullets.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “Why Black Lives Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

‘BLAH … BLAH … BLAH:’ ‘I feared for my life… thought I saw a gun… don’t know why I shot’…

Shortly after unarmed Stephon Clark had been shot and killed by Sacramento police officers, Mayor Darrell Steinberg acknowledged that implied racism and bias was a major factor in Clark’s death.

Sacramento police officers pumped 20 bullets into the body of Clark because they “thought” Clark had a gun. Factually, he was holding a cellphone in his hand.

As a 20-year veteran sergeant of the Los Angeles Police Department, I know firsthand that officers are expected to “know” when they fire their weapon.

Name another group of professionals that routinely deal with the public that are allowed to act so carelessly and capriciously without repercussion. Imagine, a top chef in a five-star restaurant who mistakenly serves a chicken breast to a customer who had requested a filet mignon and was then allowed to just simply respond, “I thought it was beef.”

That chef would be fired. Why, then, does society and lawmakers allow police officers to get away with, “I was in fear. I thought he had a gun. I don’t know why I shot.”

Polices officers are trained professionals and are expected “to get it right.” Every time.

Having spent my entire career in uniform as a patrol officer and supervisor, I know firsthand that suspects attempting to avoid arrest are sometimes uncooperative, combative and will run. I have chased, fought and arrested many suspected criminals; and guess what? I shot no one.

The officers in the Clark shooting were shown on video to be in a position of cover and concealment at the corner of his grandmother’s residence with an air unit overhead. What was the urgency to confront Clark? The officers had the benefit of an air unit overhead.

Why not request additional units, set up a perimeter to contain the suspect in the backyard? And why did those officers mute the audio on their bodycam after the shooting?

According to Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, there are “various reasons why somebody would.” I can’t think of one.

Shortly after the murder of Stephon Clark, 34-year-old Danny Ray Thomas was shot and killed by Texas Deputy Cameron Brewer. Thomas, who was unarmed, had been walking in the middle of the street with his pants down around his ankles prior to the fatal police encounter.

While a “thorough, transparent and expeditious” investigation has been promised by Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, it is my hope that expediency does not replace common sense and reasonableness.

Although it was reported that Brewer had a Taser in his possession and had been previously trained on the use of non-lethal force when dealing with a mentally ill person, he claimed “fearing for his safety” as the justification for firing a single shot striking Thomas in the chest.

We’ve seen this before. In North Miami, police officer Jonathan Aledda shot an unarmed black man, Charles Kinsey, as he lay prone on the ground with his arms extended. Kinsey attempted to explain to Aledda that he [Kinsey] was assisting a mentally ill client who was also seated on the ground next to Kinsey at the time the officer fired his weapon. Thankfully, Kinsey did not die. When asked why he shot, Aledda’s responded, “I don’t know.”

Unless and until there are substantive consequences for officers who use deadly force as a first resort rather than a last resort as trained — there will continue to be copy-cat, “fearful” killers offering nothing more than “I was scared” as a reason.

As a mid-term election nears, it is important for voters to get engaged. Demand action from our legislators and accountability from our police officers.

To that end, California Assemblyman Kevin McCarty reported that state legislators recently introduced a measure, AB 931, allowing officers to use deadly force “only when necessary” rather than “when reasonable.”

Let’s demand that the lawmakers also take a page out of the book of the Baltimore city solicitor who has adopted a policy that would hold its’ police officers financially responsible in civil litigation for punitive damages. The time to act is now.

Cheryl Dorsey, a retired LAPD sergeant, is the author of her autobiography “Black and Blue, The Creation of A Manifesto. Her column runs the second Thursday of each month in The Wave. For more information, visit and follow her on Twitter @sgtcheryldorsey.



PASTOR’S CORNER: A word to the wise is sufficient

Let’s do another “mini-Bible study” with this article, just to add a bit of variety to the column. I’m sure you are familiar with this sentiment: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”

We have been taught to receive this as a promise from God exclusively to his people throughout all of time. If this is true, then the scriptures should contain this exact quote directly from him.

So, let’s check it out to see if we are scripturally justified in our belief. We are faced with two questions that demand an answer: does this promise appear, as quoted, in scripture; and, if so, is the quote directly from God to all of his people? I asked my trusty Bible app and here’s what I found.

The answer to question one is yes; the quote appears only once in the entire Bible, in Hebrews 13:5, where Paul (the traditional author) attributes the quote to God at some time in the past. He prefaces the quote with “for he hath said.” In the Old Testament we find that God personally said something close to our quote in question on two occasions.

First, in Genesis 28:15, he told Jacob in a dream that “I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of,” a reference to promises he made in verses 13 and 14. Secondly, in Joshua 1:5, God said to Joshua that “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee,” a reference to Joshua’s charge to finish what Moses started.

Notice that neither of these Old Testament verses contains the entire quote we’re addressing. It appears that Paul may have taken a part of each verse to form the promise in Hebrews. And on to our second concern, did God personally make this promise to all of his people? From what we have found thus far, the answer is no.

In Genesis and in Joshua, God personally spoke only to Jacob and Joshua, respectively, and not to Israel as a whole. What then is the basis for our belief that the promise is for all of us? Could we be mistaken?

Don’t panic; there’s another verse we can count on. Turn in your Bible to Deuteronomy 31:1, where we find that “Moses went and spake these words unto all Israel.”

In the verses that follow (verses 2-5) Moses shares with Israel that God has promised to pave the way for Israel to finally occupy Canaan, the land promised them years ago. Then in verse 6, Moses reports God’s final promise, “fear not … he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” This is the first and only time in scripture that God made this promise to all of his people.

Today we can also claim this promise for ourselves, but there is a requirement that must be met, the same one required of Jacob, Joshua and Israel; the promise only operated for them when they were doing God’s will for their lives. We today must meet that same test. Otherwise, we are on our own. It pays to follow God in all that we think, say and do in life. A word to the wise.

Rev. O.L. Johnson, a retired LAPD lieutenant, is an associate pastor in his home church. Greater New Zion Baptist, 501 W. 80th St. in Los Angeles.

Pastor’s Corner is a religious column that looks at the relevancy of scripture in life today. The column will appear monthly in The Wave and on its website,