A Quaker’s Manifesto on Mental Health and Policing, 6.29.20
Yesterday I participated in a forum with my faith community, the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting (also known as Quakers), on the topic of police abolition. After a period of silence, the forum posed an inquiry to the group, asking participants to spend 5 minutes writing on the topic: “What experiences and conditions in your life have led you to think or feel as you do about the police?” I’d seen the agenda in advance and purposefully did not reflect on this particular question until the forum. I wanted to see where my post-worship brain would free associate.
I want to give some background here. I have a tattoo that (in a disguised way) spells ACAB. I can’t drive past a cop without making a comment about pork or saying “FUCK 12.” I have never graffiti’d the words “Blue Lives Don’t Matter,” but I would not fault someone who did. I have had my mom in tears trying to convince me that there are “some good cops” because she was alarmed at how militant I sounded. I once got banned from a Quaker Facebook group for a comment I made that was felt by the administrator to be “disrespectful to members of law enforcement within the community” (though the comment was written respectfully, and I have yet to meet a Quaker police officer). Basically, I really fucking hate cops, and I have no idea how to effectively communicate with people who care about cops’ feelings.
You would think that the experiences I have had that led me to feel as I do about police would be the ones in which I have seen them tackle my terrified, psychotic patients to the ground. The times I have seen cops place a completely calm and voluntary suicidal patient in handcuffs to go to the hospital for help, because handcuffing every single person who is taken by police to an ER with a mental health complaint is official DPD policy. Or maybe I’d think about the cops I heard on a YouTube video last week, choking the shit out of an autistic kid who was dancing too suspiciously on his way home from playing his violin to lonely kittens in a shelter.
For real. Fuck 12.
But surprisingly, those weren’t the cops I thought about. These are the words I scrawled in my notebook: “9GN. Is there such a thing as a good cop? No one questions their role, just whether they’re doing a good job at what they’re supposed to do. And what are they supposed to do? CATCH THE SLAVES. They’re all good cops, look how many slave descendants they put in chains every damn shift they work. Turn off the news and read, motherfuckers.”
So to explain my shorthand, 9GN stands for 9 Garden North, which was the inpatient psychiatric unit I worked on at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital during the first year of my residency. The cop I free-associated to was a patient I treated on that unit as an intern in 2005. He was diagnosed with PTSD related to his work as an NYPD officer at Ground Zero after the 9/11 bombings. His job was to recover the dead bodies from all the detritus, a mission that went on for months and months. He once picked up a leg that was later determined to belong to his best friend, a firefighter. He numbed himself for 4 years with alcohol, then got sober. Once he had the gift of that mental clarity, he didn’t want to live anymore. My job, in my second month as a psychiatrist, was to help convince this guy he should choose to live.
I watched him leave the unit the day we discharged him with no idea if anything I’d said had reached him. But I do recall one particularly intense session. I don’t remember the details of what he said or what I said, but I remember we were both in tears. So I must have shared some emotional connection with this man – I must have reflected his light back to him in some way. I worked with him long before I grew to hate cops and I remember seeing him in my head as a tortured hero. (Later, I would spend 7 years working with combat veterans in the VA healthcare system, and I would meet a great many more patients I would experience as tortured heroes.) I was grateful for the service he had done for his fellow New Yorkers, and I felt sorry he was so fucked up by it. I think he knew that, or he believed it could be so enough to let himself get vulnerable enough with me to cry like a baby. Big tough cop like that, breaking down with a rookie shrink. I was so young and clueless at that time, both about how to be a psychiatrist and about the history of policing in this country. But regardless, if you would have asked me at that time, “Is there such a thing as a good cop?” My answer would have been something like: “Sure, absolutely. There are cops who sprinted into the World Trade Center as it was tumbling to the ground, for fuck’s sake.”
Today, I am a more experienced psychiatrist, and less clueless about how the world works. And today, my answer to that question, with a degree of certainty so high as to be spiritual, is: “No. There is no such thing as a good cop.” And I have to figure out a way to defend that stance. Ideally, with a discourse that does not end with the word “motherfuckers.”
After we had time to reflect on the question about the experiences that have shaped our views of police, the forum opened to discuss the “Quaker Call to Action” statement that the Justice Action Group (JAG) had distributed for the meeting to consider last week. (The general point of the statement is that as Quakers we should support actions to defund police.) Friends moved to respond to the statement spoke in turn, with time for silent reflection between each speaker, which helped us make sure everyone’s comments were heard and considered.
MH was one Friend in the queue. He spoke about how as a young man he’d spent 3 years doing prison ministry at Attica State Prison, and what he learned there is that there is no better training ground for violence than a prison. Beyond the inhumane living conditions inside cages, the environment is one that is explicitly designed to use violence as strategically as possible. He left that experience with an entirely new viewpoint on prisons; having opened his eyes, he recalled thinking, “The world would be better if we just let everybody out.” But he knew proposing that approach would not go over well to the general public. He spoke about his struggle with the “incremental change” approach some reformists take, vs. a more radical dismantling and rebuilding that our statement calls for.
PD was another Friend who shared. She always seems to “speak my mind” (a phrase Quakers use to connote agreement with a previous speaker), and I was excited to hear what she’d have to say. What she said threw me for a loop. She talked about how it is so fundamental to our entire belief system as Quakers that there is “that of God in everyone” that we have to fully embrace the fact that the light of God shines just as bright in every single police officer there is in this racist-ass world. Then she made a more logistical observation that she would like to see more details about what we propose money divested from police would be spent on instead. A fair point, and one I have a good answer to (see below).
During the silence that followed P’s words, I told myself to lean into the discomfort of hearing such a trusted voice speak what amounted to the words Blue Lives Matter. What I jotted down in my notebook were the words: “All or none. Andy Warhol.” This was my shorthand reminder of a Malcolm Gladwell podcast I listened to yesterday that addressed the issue of compulsive hoarding. Apparently Andy Warhol used to go to flea markets and collect various “treasures,” random things like cookie jars and fly swatters. He just kept acquiring more and more stuff, then refused to discard anything. “Everything has its beauty. Just not everybody sees it,” was his explanation for his eccentricity. Another famous quote attributed to Warhol, presumably in reference to his love of drag shows: “If everyone isn’t beautiful, no one is.”
I tried to wrap my head around that as I listened to the podcast (missing whatever argument Malcolm Gladwell was trying to make) because it just sounded so Quaker: If everyone isn’t beautiful, no one is. So if someone like Jesus was made from the atoms of this planet, then yes, a police officer from that same stardust must also shine. Otherwise, Christ Himself was a dud.
The next Friend to speak was DW. For readers who are not familiar with AAFM, D is a former dean of the Quaker seminary school in Indiana. He also logged more than 4,000 hours of unpaid labor as part of a civilian Police Oversight Committee that (as far as I know) accomplished nothing concrete, but did give him a broader perspective on public opinion; this added yet another layer of complexity to his own opinions, having had two family members murdered by cops, and two family members who are cops. Oh! And D, as is typical for us at AAFM, was the only person of color in the Z/room. As he put it, he was the only Friend in attendance who had skin in the game. So I was very eager to hear his reaction to our statement.
When his turn came, all I could think about was a scene in a movie I watched on Hulu last night called Shirley. In it, Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley Jackson, the troubled but “horrifically talented” writer from the stiflingly sexist 1940s. She was married to a famous literary critic and professor who mansplained to her constantly and tried to control her every move, while he slept around with his students. There is a scene in the movie that goes on for a full minute or two, in which the viewer sees only Shirley’s face, until her husband walks up from behind her. Elisabeth Moss is a phenomenal actress who takes you through a series of emotions in that single shot of her progression of facial expressions. The first is anxiety, though you don’t know what she’s anxious about until her husband finally appears and says “It’s brilliant.” He’s just read her completed manuscript, and though her contempt for him is clear throughout the film, you see how important his opinions about her work are to her when her face breaks out into joyous relief and tears stream down her cheeks. At that point, her husband’s voice continues, “Of course, I have taken a few notes…” to which Shirley’s periorbital muscles suppress an eyeroll as she responds, “Of course.”
What D said was: “I read that JAG statement last week. I would have signed it right then and there.” Joyous relief.
Then: “I do have a few points to add.” Of course.
D then basically gave JAG a “feedback sandwich,” which is where you start out with something positive, then move into something constructive, then wrap up with another positive note. And his constructive feedback was pointing out that you need to give police officers a feedback sandwich. In other words, you need to give credit to the people like my NYPD patient on 9GN, the people who became cops because they were indoctrinated in our culture to see them as heroes and protectors, and the state offered them a job with benefits that will support their families. Most of them didn’t say as kids, “I wanna protect property and catch slaves when I grow up!” They were just as blind to what their actual job duties would be as I was, before Angela Davis opened my eyes. If we do not say something positive to acknowledge their commitment to public safety, we will drive away the police officers who at least want to be protectors, and then – who will be left?
D spoke for a good long while (longer than he intended to, he mentioned at the end of his comments), and I was glad he did. He shared some other observations that made my heart ache. First, he talked about “white allies” he recalls protesting with back in the day, people who said they were down to fight for the cause, but disappeared when the shit hit the fan. “How long will you stay with us,” he said he would wonder.
I immediately thought of my F/friend MW, another JAG member, who linked her arms in solidarity during a recent protest against police brutality where she was functioning as a legal observer (one who supports arrestees and documents police misconduct). Because the state has explicitly been targeting legal observers (along with medics and the press – war crimes are not off the table here, just ask the folx who got teargassed), damned if she didn’t get thrown in jail. But when shit hit the fan, she stayed, and I carry her courage with me as inspiration every time I grieve the loss of my own comfort zone.
D reflected more on his experiences with law enforcement as a person of color. At some point I jotted down in my notebook: “Had to call the police.” D was talking about situations in his work life during which his only option to keep others safe was to call 911. I don’t remember the details of D’s story because I was distracted by thinking about a patient of mine I treated at Detroit Central City last year. Her life story wrecked me so much that I removed identifying details, then cut and pasted the psychiatric evaluation I wrote into a Word document I could save, because I wanted to remember her story as a tragic example of every racist and oppressive system in the world we live in. From my note:
XXXX is a 31-year-old woman who describes numerous traumatic experiences dating back to childhood. Both of her parents were drug dealers, and she recalls instances when she was 5 or 6 years old in which the police raided their home in the middle of the night, breaking their windows to get inside and drawing their guns. She remembers how they went through her underwear drawer and strip-searched her and her siblings without her parents present.
At the age of 7, a neighbor began sexually abusing her. This went on for 4 years until one day she cried out in pain in the bathroom and was found to have a rectal tear. When her parents found out what had been happening to her, they took her to the man’s home and had her watch as her father beat him almost to death. She recognizes that their intention was to show her “this is what happens if anyone hurts you,” but instead, her father went to prison for assault and the man who was molesting her went on to abuse other children until he was eventually incarcerated 3 years later. “If they had just gone to the authorities, he would have gotten the help he needed and maybe he wouldn’t have done that to other kids.”
After consumer’s father got out of prison, he was violent and abusive to her mother. She recalls watching him break her face and on a couple of instances she had no choice to but call the police to protect her mother, which led to intense feelings of guilt for sending her father to jail.
My note goes on, and on, what this woman has been through. But that was the relevant image: being forced to call the police to protect her mother. Why? Because her father was beating her senseless. Why is her father so violent? Because he spent 3 years at “a training ground for violence,” and he survived. Why did he spend 3 years in a place like that? Because he felt the same rage any father would feel if they heard someone had been raping their kid, and he didn’t think “the authorities” would administer the kind of justice he wanted to see happen to this neighbor. Meanwhile, this neighbor must at some point have recognized how harmful his sexual impulses could be if he acted on them, but felt he had to keep them secret. Why? Because sick perverts like that go to prison, where horrible things happen to them. So it was safest to just try to ignore those thoughts as best as he could until the day an opportunity presented itself and he thought, “Maybe I’ll just…” You get the picture. It starts off gentle and innocuous until you’ve got a 7-year-old girl with a rectal tear, who will someday have to call the same police who put her father in a cage for 3 years. It’s either that, or her mother ends up in the grave and her father ends up in a cage (again). And then – who will be left?
D emphasized that you can’t talk about disarming the police without disarming the populace. I wrote his words verbatim in my notebook: “There are people who would think about killing me like they’d think about killing a fly.” The fact is, there will be situations where Floridians will stand their ground, joggers will be hunted down in broad daylight, mothers will be beaten to death in front of their daughters unless a highly trained individual steps in emergently. We need people like that to protect our most vulnerable. But do we need to use the same phone number to call those specialists as we do when a kid in a hoodie is talking to himself and weirding people out? When someone is suicidal and wants to go to the hospital for help? When a drunk guy is passed out on the sidewalk and blocking the entrance of a store? When a mother is desperate to get help for her son before he dies of a heroin overdose?
These are all mental health issues, best addressed by mental health professionals. What if we gave police departments that feedback sandwich by first acknowledging those who want to prevent violence so earnestly that they have spent years developing the crucial skillset to do so, then pointing out that they shouldn’t have to be bothered by situations outside of their expertise. As a mental health professional, I want to help with all those clusterfuck days that distract them from what they thought they’d be doing when they daydreamed as a boy about becoming a police officer. I’m pretty sure I could sell that.
After D’s comments, our forum’s third part started, during which Friends could share in more of a conversation style. It felt like a gameshow’s rapid-fire bonus round once we forwent the periods of silence between speakers, and my notes start to get shoddier. There is some discourse about the idea of “restructuring public safety services,” and LD, a JAG member and one of my Quaker idols, reflects on how we need to build social networks for social issues, and these networks must not be part of a police force. Several Friends emphasize demilitarization of the police, that we cannot as Quakers support any system that authorizes violence.
My mind was spinning at this point. Earlier this week, I got an email asking for workshop proposals for the National Lawyers Guild’s upcoming #Law4thePeople convention. This workshop would be for a group of lawyers – I’m an incoming first year law student. I realize I have nothing to offer these people. I submitted a proposal on a whim because I want the opportunity to have a bunch of radical minds with important connections listen to me talk about the issue of separating mental health interventions from policing, so I can hear their ideas about what the hell I should do next. This is the proposal I came up with:
No Treatment, No Peace: Making Police Obsolete in Mental Health Crises
In recent months, the BLM movement and calls to #DefundPolice have gained astonishing momentum in shifting public opinion on policing. People with mental health challenges are 16 times more likely to be killed by police. Almost half of police encounters involving a civilian death involve someone in a mental health crisis. Furthermore, when police are called to assist in situations in which a person in a mental health crisis is behaving erratically, their presence often agitates the individual further, which can lead to criminal charges such as resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer; this is one mechanism whereby mental illness has been criminalized. Even progressive leaders have called for improved training for law enforcement in mental health crisis management, but these measures have not been effective and would not be consistent with calls to disinvest from the police state; furthermore, they legitimize the role of police as “go-to” for mental health crises. This workshop will explore community programs to assist people experiencing mental health crises without involving law enforcement, and how these approaches can be disseminated and supported by our activist efforts.
I would tell them all about CAHOOTS, a genius nonprofit group in Oregon that has hooked up with the 911 dispatcher to send a mental health team to address mental health-related calls. The program is the closest thing I’ve seen to the answer of how we can disentangle police from mental health, but it has what may be a tragic flaw: the name is an acronym (“Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets”), but they really are mental health professionals who work in cahoots with police. They always have police back-up (for their own safety), and sometimes they accompany police to a reported mental health crisis rather than replace them. But when LD said this support network shouldn’t be part of the police, she spoke my mind. D, too, cautioned us that if we’re all in cahoots with each other, people in the non-blue uniforms need to have as much of a say as the people in the blue uniforms. (He wouldn’t have said non-blue, because that sounds dumb, but that’s what I wrote in my notebook.) But some of the people in the blue uniforms aren’t going to like non-blue uniforms having a voice, and maybe it would be better if we just, like, did our separate thing? I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW, OKAY? We have to experiment. No one knows what to do in a world where we have to worship together over Zoom because the majority of our group are at risk of dying if they leave their goddamn house. There is no blueprint for this. Welcome to anarchism. If we wanted a blueprint we’d be Marxists.
These days, it feels to me sometimes like I’m living in two dystopian movies at the same time. A global pandemic and a stunning movement around racism and policing have combined to give us a focal point in history around which it has become necessary to restructure society. Rashida Tlaib, my district’s Congresswoman and last year’s NLG Annual Dinner Honoree, is now calling for the formation of an “Emergency Responder Corps” to address the needs of those hit hardest by COVID (who are also those most likely to be murdered by police). She writes:
We need transformative approach that is focused on saving lives. I’m proposing the Emergency First Responders Corps, which will perform affirmative outreach, knocking on every door, using mobile resource stations, and actively striving to reach people who are the most vulnerable.
What would an Emergency First Responders Corps look like?
The most important aspect of the Emergency First Responder Corps is that it must be civilian and designed to help people. The idea isn’t novel — it is something neighbors have been doing for centuries, and the time is now to take comprehensive approach to formalizing it to help our most vulnerable communities.
A good model of this exists in Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — has worked for decades to help people in crisis. They deal with those who are suicidal, houseless, infirm, or just having trouble getting the basics they need to survive. It’s fully integrated into the local service community. And they are effective. In 2018, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls. CAHOOTS and the White Bird Clinic were recently awarded federal funding to expand telemedicine access during the current pandemic.
One of the most important aspects of any outreach is a complete severance from law enforcement and the fines, fees and incarceration that follows. Decades of pouring money into cops, jails, and prisons has left the criminal legal system as the only option in many places.
An Emergency First Responders Corps would sever that link between police and interactions that are primarily health-related. Alternatives that include trained behavioral health experts could dramatically reduce incidences of violence, reduce arrests, and minimize dangerous interactions between law enforcement and people whose problems are best treated with non-jail solutions. By diverting money that would otherwise go to the bloated system of mass incarceration, federal and local governments could instead fund a first response program solely dedicated to the distribution of resources and assisting the most vulnerable. This would have long-term safety benefits for the community.
As a psychiatry resident, the chair of Columbia’s psychoanalytic institute was one of my therapy supervisors. In our supervision sessions, I would read my “process notes,” basically a shorthand transcript of my sessions with an extremely challenging long-term therapy patient. I remember the embarrassment I felt one day while I was reading something dumb I’d said to my patient, during a session I’d fucked up rather spectacularly. He said to me: “Lindsay, you’re flying by the seat of your pants, with no experience or knowledge of theory to guide you. I admire your courage.” He somehow made a compliment out of my rookie misstep, and his compassionate reframe of my ignorance has stayed with me.
It is courageous to do what we are doing here. To proceed ahead not knowing the answers to deeply troubling questions. But we are here to support each other as Friends, to listen to each other’s voices punctuated with radio silence on a Zoom chat in these strange dystopian times. After this forum today, I can write these words tonight speaking not as a psychiatrist, not as a law student, not as a mother, but as a member of a community of faith that believes that there is that of God in all: Policing as we know it should be abolished, and if there was ever a time to start over from scratch, it is now.