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It is ironic that at a time when crime is at a historic low, prevailing headlines have many believing that 2014 was a particularly violent year. In the wake of two separate grand juries’ refusal to indict police officers in the killings of African-American men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, protests rippled across the nation, spurring further encounters between police and civilians. Instances of prisoner abuse at Rikers Island ignited a class action lawsuit and a federal investigation. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Ismaiyl Brinsley boarded a Bolt bus to Manhattan and subsequently the N train to Brooklyn, where he used the same silver Taurus 9-millimeter pistol that he wounded his ex-girlfriend with earlier to murder two New York City police officers.
It is natural to wants answers in the wake of tragedy. By now, there have been thousands of reports and millions of Tweets attempting to interpret and give meaning to these egregious events, and the conversation is far from over. However, in an epoch dominated by the amplifying echo chamber of social media, society is quick to arrive at knee-jerk solutions that ultimately obfuscate underlying problems.
It is my opinion that there are three separately-linked issues that underscore these recent events. The first is institutionalized racism that continues to pervade cultural practices and precepts. The second is society’s propensity to tenuously connect mental illness and violence. The third, is New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s recently announced plan to reboot the city’s criminal justice system in order to ensure that people who commit low-level offenses and display signs of psychiatric illness are referred to appropriate services rather than cycle in and out of overcrowded prisons.
To be clear, the taking of any innocent life is unequivocally condemnable and immoral. Mr. Brinsley’s actions were egregious and this article is not intended to indemnify him, but to place his actions in a broader context. Mr. Brinsley’s life can be summed up as a series of harrowing circumstances and mostly petty crimes that indicate at least some degree of psychological instability and ultimately culminated in tragedy. He had a childhood marked by broken homes and sexual abuse. He had failed as a student, parent, entrepreneur and friend. Additionally, he alluded to feeling depressed and suicidal more than once, and seems to have taken medication and been under the care of a mental health professional at some point.
It may be suggested that had Mr. Brinsley received more comprehensive treatment, he may not have maimed his ex-girlfriend and callously murdered Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos before taking his own life. On the other hand, the relationship between mental illness and violence is frequently exaggerated. The majority of individuals with psychiatric illness are non-violent, just as the majority of police officers harbor no ill will toward people of color. Using Mr. Brinsley’s actions to justify the stereotype of the mentally ill as inherently dangerous is as untoward as proclaiming that all law enforcement officials are inherently racist based on the actions of the Staten Island police officers who choked and suffocated Eric Garner after he was caught peddling cigarettes.
Furthermore, the slaying of Officer Liu and Officer Ramos should not dismiss decades of systemic racism regarding how the law is applied and enforced; as a matter of fact, they are two entirely separate issues. Instead, the senseless murders of Officers Liu and Ramos can be interpreted as an isolated act of a single, deeply-troubled individual, rather than an indictment of those who continue to justly and peacefully protest the ways in which people of color feel threatened and disproportionately targeted by an institution they feel neither protects nor serves them.
Moreover, it is unfortunate that these events come at the heels of Mr. DeBlasio’s announcement to reboot the city’s law enforcements in an effort to ensure that individuals who are arrested for petty crimes and who display signs of mental illness are referred to treatment programs rather than deteriorate in an overcrowded prison system that is notorious for its treatment toward the mentally ill. On December 1st, Mr. DeBlasio announced the city’s ambitious plan that would dedicate $130 million over the next four years to expand the availability of mental health services to residents who find themselves cycling in and out of jail for so-called “broken windows” offenses. By emphasizing treatment over punishment, the Mayor’s plan calls for tripling the size of pretrial intervention programs, vastly increasing resources to help individuals transition from incarceration back to the community. In this way, people with serious psychiatric illnesses may be directed to treatment programs rather than proceed to court. A cornerstone of the plan is the creation of drop-off centers, where officers could bring people arrested for minor offenses to determine whether they would be better served by detox services or community-based treatment, instead of remaining in custody. This plan, of course, also comes in the midst of a class action lawsuit against the city after an explosive investigation by the New York Times detailing inhumane treatment at the hands of correction officers, particularly toward inmates suffering from psychological afflictions.
As Mr. DeBlasio becomes embroiled in legal matters, his critics continue to scapegoat him for being in some way responsible for the deaths of Officers Liu and Ramos, due to his opposition to “stop-and-frisk” style policing (which a federal judge has ruled to be unconstitutional), and his allusion to the uncomfortable notion that many people of color, particularly young men, feel that they will always be treated differently than white men at the hands of law enforcement. This leap of logic is as pernicious as attributing instances of violence to lapses in mental healthcare, as research illustrates that most people who have mental illness do not commit violent crime.
As previously stated, it is understandable to want answers after tragedy, but too often meaningful conversations are derailed by impulsive reactions that seem appropriate at the moment, but are ultimately unwholesome and fail to address any underlying causes. The sweeping generalizations that individuals with mental illness pose some inherent risk to society at large and that Mr. DeBlasio’s rhetoric in the aftermath of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner somehow contributed to the deaths of two New York city police officers could not be further from the truth. Although the former perception may actually help increase resources that could be used to treat mental illness, it will only shift rhetoric and policy-making in an unproductive direction that will further marginalize those with psychiatric illness. What is presently needed is a time for grieving, and subsequently a wholesome discourse that welcomes diversity and eschews quick fixes to multifaceted problems. While it will not be accomplished quickly or easily, it is ultimately necessary if we wish to make sense of these events.
Chaya Himelfarb is a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News