Black feminism

Michelle Lee Shirley & the State of Mental Health Care

Police kill Michelle Lee Shirley—an unarmed, mentally ill, Black mother—in a hail of gunfire. This is why her death should be a call to action for fixing mental health care

Authors Note: A later draft of this blog is featured on Daily Progressive.

While children across the United States prepared for a night of trick-or-treating, this October 31st, a police officer killed 39-year-old Michelle Lee Shirley in Torrance, California. Shirley’s death makes yet another death of a Black woman during an encounter with law enforcement.

Shirley reportedly lived with bipolar disorder. Like 66-year-old Deborah Danner, killed by an officer in New York this October, Shirley needed mental health intervention rather than law enforcement. Indeed, Danner expressed this in an essay she wrote titled “Living with Schizophrenia”:

We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead.

That Michelle Lee Shirley died just weeks after Deborah Danner adds frightening urgency to her words. The Torrance Police Department provided a press release shortly after her death that lends credence to the fear that law enforcement does not adequately respond to mental health crises:

Torrance Police units responded the area and upon locating the vehicle they observed reckless and dangerous driving, and a pursuit ensued. Officers were authorized to utilize a Precision Intervention Technique maneuver which brought the vehicle to a stop facing northbound on Cabrillo Ave just north of Sepulveda Boulevard. The vehicle accelerated in reverse striking an occupied Torrance Police vehicle and then accelerated forward striking a second occupied marked Torrance Police vehicle. At that point an officer involved shooting occurred at approximately 2:36 pm.

There’s no mention of Shirley beyond ‘the driver’ and “The deceased was identified as being Michelle Lee Shirley, 39 years of San Diego and notifications have been made to the immediate family.” This begs the question: Why is law enforcement called in instances of potential mental health crisis?

Mental Health And Law Enforcement

In 2012 researchers at the University of South Florida conducted a study to uncover whether they could find a link between adequate mental health care and the likelihood of arrest.They examined data from offenders from two counties Florida.

In one county, they found a 17% decrease in the risks of arrests when people had access to outpatient services in one county. In contrast, they found a 22% increase in the risk of arrests with the use of inpatient services.

This suggests not all mental health services are created equal. Quality of mental health care is key in reducing the likelihood of arrests. Law enforcement alone cannot be the answer.

Feeling the Effects of Police Brutality

A 2016 study in the _Journal of Traumatic Stress _found residents of Ferguson, Missouri dealt with mental health in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. His death at the hands of law enforcement helped grow a movement that reveals that anti-Black roots of police brutality in the US.

Researchers surveyed 261 police officers and 304 community members about their level of exposure to Michael Brown personally, protets, media, and their fears about the events that after his death. They found racial differences in mental health outcomes as well as differences between community members and law enforcement.

White residents reported distress over disruptions to their personal lives. They also reported less symptoms of PTSD than Black community members. Overall, community members reported more symptoms of PTSD and depression than did law enforcement.

Thus, as calls for police reform continue throughout cities across the United States, the effect of mental health outcomes of communties affected by police brutality.

This means in addition to losing Black citizens to police violence, we must consider the mental health of the members of the communities left racked by the aftermath.

Giving Voice to Black Women in Need of Mental Health Care

In her own words, Michelle Lee Shirley describes how she started to struggle with bipolar disorder. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bipolar disorder as a “major mood disorder in which tine individual most commonly experiences episodes of depression and episodes of mania.” Shirley knew her support system could help her cope with the disorder.

In their absence, the episodes of mania she struggled with might undo her hard work as a mother, wife, daughter and friend. Her family informed the _Daily Breeze _that she never used drugs or behaved violently, though the police had responded to Shirley due to previous episodes.

In the same interview Shirley’s mother Debra commented on how she failed the police had failed her daughter:

“I feel like they paint people of color with a brush that says: ‘You’re disposable.’ I really feel like police are not equipped to deal with mental illness in the field. Shoot the tires or disable the car.”

Indeed Shirley’s mother echos the sentiments of a number of advocates of #SayHerName, a campaign intended to bring to light the violence inflicted on Black women in the US.

In their 2015 Say Her Name report, the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intesrectionality and Social Policy Studies echo similar sentiments:

While in many cases Black women killed by police were alleged to be armed or dangerous, witness accounts often dispute officers’ version of the facts, and suggest that less lethal force could have been employed – particularly in cases where Black women were experiencing mental health crises…

Just a browse through the report uncovers a pattern in the number of Black women victims of police violence who struggled with mental health. This includes Margaret Laverne Mitchell killed by the LAPD in 1999; Tanisha Anderson, killed in Cleveland also suffered from bipolar disorder; and Natasha McKenna, who police tasered in Virginia in 2015.

The report goes on to highlight how law enforcement lack sufficient training to intervene in mental health crises. When faced with Black women suffering, police perceive them as “superhuman” and thus “Rather than being viewed as a woman in need, they are instead met with deadly force.”

Until the US provides adequate mental health care services in all communities, including properly trained first responders, the mistreatment of Black women like Michelle Lee Shirley will continue.

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