March 20, 2019: Osaze Osagie, a State College resident who was black, autistic and schizophrenic, was shot and killed by police when he ran toward them with a knife during a mental health visit.
Before Penn State’s University Park campus was deserted due to the coronavirus, stickers and posters were plastered everywhere in the past week to encourage students to “remember Osaze” and the incident that took place one year ago.
In Osagie’s case, the police acted as they should have. To clarify, it was an unfortunate outcome that exposes systematic problems, but the responding officers had a legitimate reason to shoot.
Here’s the problem: police are not prepared to be the responders to mental health situations. Police are not taught to protect people with mental health problems, but to protect themselves and everyone else from them.
Police conduct welfare checks with the assumption that their safety is at risk, failing to remember that the purpose of the checks is to establish the safety of who they are visiting.
Far too many welfare checks result in the killing of the person being checked on. A CNN article titled, “When a police wellness check becomes a death sentence” lists a few examples. The number of welfare checks ending in such a way is unclear, but the Treatment Advocacy Center has a study that found “people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer” than the general population.
Most police officers receive little to no training regarding racial bias or disability response. My mom, who is a police officer, said her academy did not teach anything further than community policing, which deals only with interactions with the general public. State College police officers undergo 40 hours of crisis intervention training, but this still isn’t enough. Police are not hired to help people with mental health problems; they are hired to maintain the law and use necessary force to do so.
There needs to be an alternative to calling the police in mental health cases. Instead of relying on the same people called for a break-in, there should be separate responders with specialized training and understanding of disabilities and mental health.
It’s absurd that people are afraid to call for help. People with mental health deficits are part of society like everyone else, and they deserve resources tailored to them.
Kerima Cevik is a social justice advocate and the mother of a nonverbal autistic son named Mustafa. She refers to the situation of disabled people both wanting to avoid police confrontations and being more likely to encounter police than most people as “Mustafa’s Dilemma.”
She, too, pushes for alternatives to police for mental health cases. Her recommendations include a separate 911 for mental health, mental health specialists to substitute police during welfare checks and phasing out school resource officers.
A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation concluded that up to 50 percent of all people killed by police in the U.S. had a disability, and the majority of those disabilities pertained to mental health.
Welfare checks should not be death sentences. Systematic issues must be addressed, and resources for people with disabilities and mental health problems need to be established.