It’s time to talk about mental illness and police brutality

Andrew Casciano

It was only supposed to be a simple call. Police in Paterson, NJ, were assisting in a phone call for a suicide attempt, and had met the victim at the St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, a little over a year ago. Later, as video emerged from the two police officers’ own recorded video, the victim was beaten and slapped by those officers—Ruben McAusland and Roger Then. The first footage shows the victim—Andrew Casciano—being slapped by McAusland in the waiting room of the emergency room as he is wheeled in.

The second footage, shot by Then with a shiteating grin on his face before the assault took place, shows McAusland reacting violently to a suicidal patient’s comments, slapping the man hard enough—twice—for blood to splatter on the bedsheets.

I have members of my family that work in behavioral health units. Under no circumstances are they to even consider touching a mentally ill patient unless they pose a direct and violent threat to the nursing staff or to themselves. There is extensive training to spot those risks. Casciano was laying in a hospital bed. His only weapon? A box of latex gloves that he threw at an officer. McAusland abused his authority and punched a man who, for all intents and purposes, was attempting to goad the police into killing him.

But the violence that McAusland and Then inflicted on Casciano is only part of the charges that have been leveled against them and four other Paterson police officers, including assault, dealing drugs and an attempted coverup. McAusland pleaded guilty to “possession and distribution of heroin, cocaine and marijuana—all of which he said he stole from a crime scene while he was on duty—and to depriving Casciano of his civil rights by assaulting him in prison.” McAusland was sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. Then, who blamed the assault on McAusland, was sentenced to six months after pleading guilty to concealing the civil rights violation.  

The videos go a long way in illustrating the ways police officers abuse and violate the trust of the community in Paterson. They are also indicative of the ways in which the police and the entire criminal justice system are inherently abusive. 

Mentally ill individuals have not often been highlighted in police brutality; they are always considered an afterthought. Is it because we don’t legitimately view mental illnesses as real illnesses that could have devastating effects on people’s interactions with police? People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter that other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.

According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, though individuals with untreated mental illnesses number only 1 in 50 US adults, they are involved with at least 1 in 4, and as many as half of all fatal police shootings. According to the co-author of the study, executive director John Snook, “By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter. This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.” 

I have had two very uncomfortable encounters with the police, both when I’ve been in the midst of panic attacks. The two officers ranged from casual indifference to outright belligerent rudeness. I did not feel safe in the company of those individuals. You can blame the lack of training the police officers have with mentally ill individuals; but it also highlights how policing is consistently and diametrically opposed to any kind of public safety or community safety, and that needs to end. 

(Photo Credit: Paterson Times)

“Why can’t I quit you?”

In March, the Metro Police Department had a minor publicity issue when one of its own was arrested in an anti-prostitution sting targeting clients.  Officer Robert A. Schmidt was charged with solicitation after agreeing to pay an undercover female officer $80 for sex.  Solicitation is a misdemeanor in the District, however, solicitation tends to be treated completely differently within both the police department and the courts.   Like in most other U.S. cities with anti-john laws, D.C. still tends to focus most of its resources on policing the sex workers themselves.  Since most workers are woman-identified, these sort of tactics have been declared to be discriminatory on a few select occasions, though not most.  Women are the largest group arrested on charges of prostitution with transgender workers being the second largest groups.  Male workers and clients only make up about 2-3 arrests per night.  In recent years, a few U.S. cities, most notably San Francisco, have instituted reforms targeting clients in order to cut off demand for sex work altogether.  In Sweden, authorities have even gone so far as to decriminalize sex work itself, while criminalizing the act of solicitation.  The intent, however, remains the same: abolition.  Even when tactics target male clients and not workers explicitly, abolition still sends the statement that sex work is wrong and inherently exploitative; workers are victims worthy of pity rather than a safe and fair wage.

With the intent of seeming more even handed in enforcing the law against engaging in and soliciting prostitution, D.C. utilizes “rehabilitation” programs for individuals charged as clients of prostitution called “john schools” as a means of teach clients about the ‘inherent’ harms of prostitution like “crime, fear, and health disorders”. School is one day long and consists of testimony from “a psychologist, survivors of prostitution, prosecutors, police, health professionals, local residents, and business owners”.  The finger is pointed at these clients instead of pimps, police, and other abusers; it also virtually ignores systems, which not only perpetuate the practice but make it dangerous. These schools, with a fine, are offered in lieu of the typical penalties for first time offenders.  Officer Schmidt’s charge was dismissed after he completed “john school” and his record is clean.  It is a safe bet that workers arrested that same night had a different experience.

Despite the fact that the law itself is written indiscriminately, policing practices and the ability to expunge one’s record and avoid jail time through “john schools” signify that anti-prostitution policy remains discriminatory in practice.  Authorities have acknowledged a legitimate interest in keeping clients, especially middle-class white men, out of jail and their records clean, yet, the state seems disinterested in considering that the lives of workers would also be improved by not having convictions, police harassment or their daily lives disrupted by jail time or fines.  The practice of the law quite literally values the lives of men over women.  Low arrest rates of clients, likewise, means that there are generally low recidivism rates compared to workers and recidivism often leads to harsher sentencing.  Workers who are unable to pay increasingly high fines are more likely to spend as many as 180 days in jail.  Street workers often come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and often are parents or are supporting others.  The criminal justice system tries to see these individuals apart from their relationship to the larger community and fails to acknowledge that jail time is an unpaid absence from work.  It’s a loss of income for the worker and often for their families that is further complicated by court fees and fines, which require them to work more.  Separation from family, especially children, has problematic short and long-term complications. Children whose parents serve time in prison are often left vulnerable to higher incidences of abuse, neglect and rape; if unable to stay with extended family they are placed in state care not because their parents are necessarily unfit but because they were working.  How can advocates of criminalization claim that these practices are in the best interest of women?

Imprisonment is especially complicated in regards to transgender workers, a group, which has been disproportionately targeted for harassment and arrest in D.C.  With the passage of the amendment adding gender identity and expression to the D.C. Human Rights Act in 2007, the Department of Corrections has had to change its intake and housing policy.  Previously there was no system in place to change a person’s gender in the criminal records database, even if they had undergone transitional surgery and/or had their name and gender legally changed.  This caused many women to be automatically placed into holding cells with males and led to high incidences of sexual assault.  The new policy ostensibly would allow for transgender persons to be housed in either the general population or protective custody of the gender they are deemed by the Transgender Committee. Transgender inmates must also be allowed access to hormone treatment under the new policy even if they had not started prior to arrest.  The new policy also requires strict nondiscrimination.  It has yet to be seen, however, how the policy will be carried out and though seemingly benign, the daily reality of imprisonment poses its own dangers.  Genitalia are still the primary indicator used for determining housing and it is unlikely that many transwomen would be housed with biological women or that they would even choose to be.  Likewise, protective custody is simply euphemistic for solitary confinement; these inmates are placed in single-person cells and only given two hours outside of these cells a day to shower and exercise.  Because of this, few knowingly choose protective custody even when they fear violence among the general population.  Transgender men and women are not passive victims of a system which hasn’t yet ‘caught up’, but they have been targets of a system which bent on eliminating them.  Disproportionate and violent targeting of transgender workers, as well as all woman-identified workers, sends precisely the signal it intends: abolition.

(Image Credit: DC Trans Coalition)