How Did This Unarmed Schizophrenic Woman End Up Dead At The Hands Of Police?

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Tanisha Anderson was schizophrenic, bipolar, and “wasn’t doing very well that day,” as her brother described it, when she was killed earlier this month during an altercation with police who were called to her Cleveland home for help. It’s a familiar profile for those who die at police hands.

In Anderson’s case, it’s not clear yet quite how she died. Police say she became limp as they forcibly transported her to their vehicle, with plans to bring her to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Her brother and daughter say police violently slammed the 37-year-old mother to the ground using a take-down move.

What we do know is that the mentally ill are dramatically more likely to be the victims of excessive police force, and to be the victims of death by cop. A study by the Portland Press Herald in Maine found that nearly half of people shot by police between 2000 and 2012 were mentally ill, and that police lack proper training on defusing deadly conflicts. A KQED review in San Francisco this year found a similar proportion of mentally ill victims. In several other cities including Portland, Oregon, and Albequerque, New Mexico, Department of Justice investigations have concluded that officers have systematically used more force than necessary against the mentally ill, leading to deaths or serious injuries in many instances.

In Tanesha’s case, the police were called with a report that a woman with mental illness was “disturbing the peace,” according to Cleveland.com. Anderson’s brother Joell Anderson told Cleveland.com that Tanesha was “more of a danger to herself than others,” a description that is common in the aftermath of police deaths involving the mentally ill. He said she got into the back of the police car, when she started to freak out about the confined space and attempted to leave. At that point, he says he saw police pull out a Taser and begged them not to use it. After trying unsuccessfully to keep her in the car, they instead threw her down on the pavement, Joell said, after which she never opened her eyes or spoke.

Tanesha’s 16-year-old daughter watched the scene from inside her home, and corroborated Joell’s version of the story. “I am hoping for a change in the police system,” she told Cleveland.com. “If they have a job to protect people, that’s what they should be doing.”

It’s a common scenario for police interactions with the mentally ill to escalate from what starts as a call for help. In fact, while Cleveland police didn’t turn to their guns, police do in many other instances. Last month, a psychiatric patient was shot and killed last month while being transported to a mental institution. One of the police shootings that prompted a scathing DOJ investigation of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police was a shooting of a suicidal Iraq War veteran who was pointing a gun at his own head. And last year, several prominent police shootings involved incidents in which family members of the victims had called the police for help.

Protocol that are typical for potentially violent incidents — such as barking police commands — can actually have an adverse impact on those with mental illness. Particularly in instances when police know before they arrive on the scene that a patient is suffering from mental illness — in fact is in need of police help precisely because of their mental illness — some police departments deploy special mental health crisis teams.

Among the recommendations of a 2012 report to police chiefs on the use of force against those with mental illness or addiction problems are “slowing down the situation” by getting a supervisor to the scene, and identifying “chronic consumers” of police services. But these tactics are under-employed in many police interventions.

In a rare instance of police accountability, a Milwaukee officer was fired last month over the shooting death of a schizophrenic patient who was sleeping in the park, because the department chief said he violated protocol for dealing with the mentally ill when Christopher Manney patted down the victim from behind. But the legal standard for criminal accountability typically doesn’t change regardless of whether an officer is dealing with a person who’s mentally ill.

As use of force expert and criminal justice professor David Long told ThinkProgress after the death at St. Louis police hands of Kajieme Powell, believed to have been mentally disturbed, “In general it would be wonderful if police training included some type of mental health component. So many people out there that police deal with are in fact mentally ill. But unless somebody is in immediate danger of being lethally assaulted by a mentally ill person I’m sorry to say I would not call the police. Because the police generally aren’t sensitive to that.”