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mental health mondays :: #crazylivesmatter

kristiana coignard
you may well have heard the story in the last week of kristiana coignard, the seventeen year old who was shot to death by texas police inside a local police station. the usual haze of clear vs unclear has descended on the case with predictable rapidity, but there are certain things that are undisputed

  • coignard entered the police station at around 6:30 local time and picked up a courtesy phone that connected her to the police dispatch centre. 
  • on the phone, she said that she wanted to speak to a police officer and shortly thereafter, an officer arrived. a confrontation developed almost immediately.
  • two other officers arrived in short order and seconds late, coignard was shot dead. 

you don't have to take my word for it on this either, because there's video from the police station. [warning!! graphic content. did you read those points above? this is cctv video of a girl getting shot by police.]



another part of the story that is not disputed is that kristiana coignard suffered from mental illness. she had twice been hospitalized for bipolar disorder- specifically for suicide attempts. her aunt has told the press that she had been taking medication and seeing a counselor since december, at least, although with two hospital stays in her past, one assumes that this could not possibly have been the first time that she received psychiatric treatment.

police say that coignard brandished a weapon, a 13-inch knife. the video footage makes it difficult to tell for certain: there is definitely something that she does that causes the first officer to pin her down, although she doesn't appear to show any sort of weapon [the police department has claimed she had the words "i have a gun" written on her palm, which does appear credible if you watch her actions and the first officer's reactions]. in fact, the first officer seems to subdue her with relative ease, and it's only after the second and third officers arrive that things get out of control.

inadvertently, the second officer blocks the camera's view of the suspect/ victim, so it's impossible to tell what, if anything, she brandished. she does clearly advance toward the first officer and is shot and killed instantly. the second officer does appear to check for vital signs at one point, but there is never an attempt at any lifesaving measures.

it's no secret that police interactions with the mentally ill often end in tragedy. although no agency collects data on the specific number of mentally ill people killed by police in "justifiable homicides", a 2013 joint report by the treatment advocacy centre and the national sheriffs' association compiled a number of anecdotal reports that would indicate that there are an increasing number of such "justifiable homicides" where the victim had a mental disorder and, while civilian deaths at the hands of police may have decreased slightly over the last thirty years [surprised?], homicides resulting from attacks against police- often the hallmark of someone who is unstable- have skyrocketed.

there are a few key reasons for the grim statistics and none of them make me optimistic for the future. the first is that most police just aren't trained in how to deal with the mentally ill in any meaningful way. there are programs, specifically the crisis intervention training program created by the national alliance on mental illness, which, at forty hours, runs close to a university course, is considered the gold standard. unfortunately, most police officers get nothing close to that level of training and many aren't required to get training at all.

second, health care cutbacks have drastically reduced the facilities available to the mentally ill, which means that even if the police were to do the right thing and take an unstable person into custody in order to take them to an inpatient facility for evaluation and treatment, there isn't necessarily any place for them to do so. many times [although not in the case of kristiana coignard], when a mentally ill person is shot by police, they are likely to have a history of run-ins, none of which addressed the central problem of their medical needs. the fact is that even the best-trained police officers are helpless if there are no health care facilities available for these patients and all that training will simply allow them to resolve crisis after crisis with the same individuals, a pretty depressing thought for everyone involved.

third and most depressing, the previous two problems are not high priority issues, because the populace at large still tends to view the mentally ill as aberrant and dangerous to those around them. despite their vulnerability, people with mental disorders are disposable at best, a menace at worst, in the eyes of a great number of their community members. mentally ill people are disproportionately likely to be poor and to have substance abuse problems and, as mentioned before, many of the most troubled have numerous encounters with police. all of these make them "bad victims", the sort of people with whom the average person is unlikely to sympathize.

brian claunch
the police officers present during kristiana coignard's homicide have been put on administrative leave, pending an investigation of their handling of the situation. i sincerely hope that the police department agrees to have the video analysed by an expert in crisis intervention, but in trigger-happy texas, i suspect that won't happen. just a couple of years ago and not very far away, houston police shot and killed schizophrenic double amputee brian claunch in a home for mental patients after he became agitated and threatening with one of his care workers.

although claunch had a police record dating back to the 1980s [including the incident in 1990 where he prostrated himself of train tracks to purge the devil from his body, leading to the loss of an arm and a leg, and a 2009 arrest for cocaine possession which eventually saw him declared unfit to stand trial and remanded to the facility where he would spend the rest of his life] and despite the fact that the houston police department had a highly trained crisis intervention team at their disposal, they responded to the call at the home without any special precautions. [a spokesman for the facility claimed that static on the line might have meant that  the 911 operator who answered the call didn't realise that the person was mentally ill and so never communicated that to police. to reiterate, this was a call to a facility for mental patients.] claunch was shot when, still irrational and angry, he threatened officers with what turned out to be a pen. a grand jury declined to indict the officer responsible.

because coignard is younger and, let's not pretend it doesn't matter, more photogenic than a lot of such victims, her case has blazed through social media in the ten days since her death, but online cries for justice are by no means a guarantee of result. if killing a man in a wheelchair holding a pen is justifiable, it's unlikely that killing an able-bodied young woman with a large knife will be problematic. in the meantime, we can hope that at the very least, the case helps raise the awareness of what is happening and what solutions are available, and that it helps dispel the myth of the mentally ill monster once and for all.

Comments

way2aware said…
This is fucked. A knife, she had? WTF is wrong with maybe going with a choice to disable an [alleged] attacker, particularly those who do not brandish firearms? There is absolutely no honor in this, nothing but shame to follow these ...cops.. for the rest of their careers, and lives over this. But they just had to shoot her dead.
I think there were far greater mental health issues with these disgraceful idiots, by far, than the person they chose to execute. Anyone who would willingly choose to take away everything a person has in life, and everything they will ever have... when they could realistically have chosen a less deadly course of action, is a fucking murderous wackjob, plain and simple

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