One. Two. Three. 

Three times I had the police called on me. 

Three times too many.

 

Today, these experiences represent a blur in a moment of time. I’ve tried to forget because remembering makes me quiver. I grew up being taught the cops exist to protect and to serve, and whoever they’re after is deserving of punishment. But I now know what police have come to represent in this country; a force that criminalizes all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. 

And when uninvited, they showed up at my front door, violating my family’s Japanese customs by wearing their black leather boots into the house; they brought in the disease that law enforcement has perpetuated in our country. 

An hour and a half later, the three or four police cars rolled out of the cul-de-sac one by one; only after an intrusiveness that shattered what little dignity I had left after years of battling mental illness. I could only imagine neighbors standing on their porches, gawking at the ungodly spectacle. We later found ourselves explaining it as a “suspected burglary”. 

And yet, I felt lucky. 

I think to myself what might have happened if circumstances had been different. If instead of depression, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and during a particularly stressful episode, I moved or acted unpredictably; an apparent threat to the untrained, trigger-happy eye. Or had I been on the autism spectrum, would the police have been able to distinguish my behaviors from suspicious activity? I wonder what tragedy it might have been if I was struggling with a substance use disorder and under the influence, which is identified under current policy as an illicit activity rather than a mental illness needing treatment. Why do we send ambulances for physical health emergencies but cars full of weapon wielding officers for mental health emergencies?

The police are given too many responsibilities that they are neither qualified nor equipped to handle. Law enforcement should not come knocking on my door for a mental health crisis. 

A report published in 2015 by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that at least 1 in 4 people killed by police involved a person living with a severe mental illness. An individual suffering from mental health struggles is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than those without a mental health disorder. 

In another report published by the ACLU with data from the Department of Education, 14 million students were estimated to be in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Ninety percent of students go to public schools that do not meet the national standards to provide adequate mental health services. Meanwhile police remain in our schools, disproportionately affecting communities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color where schools are often underfunded, with fewer resources for mental health. Too often, law enforcement is utilized as an all-encompassing solution for our schools, when in reality, police represent an all-encompassing disservice. 

Today, the only evidence of my encounter with the police is a footprint of a boot still stained on the white carpet of my bedroom. It has faded over the years but never fails to remind me of the work that still needs to be done. 

With the voices of the most vulnerable communities of this country and those with mental illnesses, I call for the defunding of the police. I call on our politicians, state, and national, to radically change the structure of law enforcement, by taking the billions of dollars spent on police each year and investing in long term solutions aimed at helping to combat poverty, the lack of infrastructure, and the scarcity of social resources that too often mercilessly punish our black and brown Americans. I call on our leaders to establish a system that sends therapists, social workers, and medical professionals to our homes during urgent mental health crises, and to replace the school to prison pipeline with a pipeline to success, by removing the involvement of police in our education. I call on everyone reading this to educate themselves on how defunding the police will help America’s mental health, and to contact the politicians that represent us, and demand for change here

This is a fight that will not stop until the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness ends. This includes addressing our many American problems that affect our mental health. Police only shear the leaves at the top and the weeds grow back—a temporary solution at best, and too often a horrific tragedy. It is time to pull the entire weed, root and all. 

 

April Smith
Alumni of Maggie L Walker Governor’s School
Member of BC2M Mentor Board 2020-2021

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