Dear police officers,

Please stop killing people like me.

In the past few years, more and more schizophrenics and others who suffer from psychotic symptoms have been killed by police officers acting in self-defense. A recent report from KQED stated that half of those killed by police in the Bay Area suffered from mental illness. Most of these were people killed in response to a psychotic episode. What’s missing from these stories is the fact that what the officers are killing these people over are actions of perceived self-defense from the person they are confronting.

When you enter a room with your gun drawn, that’s an attack. When you enter with your gun drawn, the mentally ill person might as well be dead. By drawing your weapon, you have confirmed that person’s belief that you are a threat.

You may not understand psychosis so allow me to explain. When I have had psychotic episodes, I feel that I am in danger. Everything seems to be threat. In past episodes, police cars have appeared to me as giant flying sharks. So when you as a police officer approach me, you are not another human being trying to help me out, you are a threatening object that may try to kill me. Whether I am armed or not, if you pull a gun on me when I am in this state, I will react as any other person would react when attacked. I will either run or fight back.

Now it may seem logical to some folks that a cop should shoot a person coming at him with a knife, or a hammer, or as happened in one case, a glasses case being held like a gun. I understand that instinct and possibly protocol would tell an officer to shoot in this scenario, but I believe that doing so is incontrovertibly wrong. I know there are ways of de-escalating a mental health crisis situation without provoking the person in crisis to act in perceived self-defense. In cases where a person armed with objects less deadly than a firearm is provoked, officers should react in a non-lethal manner. Officers are armed with batons, tasers, pepper spray, stun guns and other instruments that can be used to incapacitate people in a non-lethal manner. If the person in crisis is not wielding a firearm, using a firearm in self-defense seems like an excessive use of force.

The KQED article highlights the Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) that some police departments have assembled. I think these teams are a great idea and an asset to any police force. However, there aren’t nearly enough officers with CIT training. According the KQED article, the SFPD has only recently begun training CIT officers.

“Three and a half years into the program, the department has trained about 18 percent of its patrol officers. Ideally, somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of officers are trained, with the goal of at least one trained officer at each station for each shift.”

This is a major problem in my eyes. Officers are constantly responding to calls to enforce 5150 psychiatric holds (a California code for an involuntary three day psychiatric hold), and with so few officers trained, the likelihood that those responding to psychiatric calls will be adequately prepared seems low. If this disturbs you, than think about the fact that only 15% of law enforcement agencies nationwide have CIT-like programs. In the Bay Area, where we have CITs, half of the people killed by police are mental illness patients. I can only imagine how much higher that statistic must be in less affluent areas where the police are even less prepared and the patients are less adequately cared for.

I think it’s safe to say that mental health issues affect everyone in America, whether directly or indirectly. It’s high time our people and government start putting more effort into treatment, rehabilitation, and community education regarding mental illness. If we don’t, the cycle of institutionalization, imprisonment and death will continue. And that is something I just cannot accept.

Police officers, I appreciate the work you do. I know you will encounter mental illness in your line of work. Please, for the sake of all of us who suffer from mental illness, take some time to learn de-escalation and crisis intervention tactics.

Thank you,

Benjamin Benson


Questions about my experience with mental illness? Ask here.

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