Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Eighth Circuit: Go Ahead and Taze Him, Bro -- He's Mentally Ill

Today from the Eighth Circuit: "[N]o reasonable officer" would have concluded that tasering an unarmed, passive paranoid schizophrenic unsuspected of any criminal activity five times after a different police officer broke his arm because just sitting there "could have [been] interpreted" by the officer "as resistance" constitutes "excessive force."

As is always in cases like these, if this strikes you as obviously ludicrous, you really need to read up on your qualified immunity jurisprudence.

Incidentally, as the gun control debate shift in focus -- as it always tends to do -- towards "mental illness", it's worth reflecting on cases like this. The victim in this case probably did need mental health services -- his father wanted him to get evaluated after he stopped taking his medicine and began behaving erratically. His father almost certainly did not want his son to have his arm broken and be shocked into submission. But now that he's learned that's what happens when you try to get your son mental health services, he's presumably going to be far less likely to call in the future. Imagine that: Imagine that every time you had a medical emergency part of the calculus before calling 911 is asking "will the EMTs beat me up?" It isn't exactly a recipe for the ideal distribution of health care service.

The man in this case wasn't violent, but our cultural discourse increasingly is treating him like an inherent threat -- which means police officers (and all of us -- but officers are the ones empowered to use physical violence) will be more inclined to treat him as a threat, which means he's more vulnerable to having violence visited upon him when what he needed was medical assistance.

Police officers are often not trained to be front-line responders in cases like this. When we treat mental illness as a subcategory of crime control, though, this is a predictable result. I think we can have a conversation about the toxic interaction of mental illness and easily accessible firearms while recognizing that the stigmatization of those suffering from mental illness doesn't just obscure who's actually more at risk from whom; it in many ways produces these risks. And the result is that mentally ill individuals and their families -- when seeking the assistance they need to be healthy -- have to make a terrible risk calculation before they make the call.

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