They Kill Grandmothers, Don't They? Policing the Mentally Ill, and Is My Mother Next?

I usually write for and about hard to reach youth. But the recent police killing of an emotionally disturbed grandmother turned my attention to not only the on-going over-policing of Black people, but more so on my mother who is currently at the final stages of Alzheimer’s where unexpected outbursts are the norm and caring for her requires both the fortitude of a well-informed son and the patience of a monk. The kind of patience a short-fused police cadet may not necessarily learn in de-escalation training, but close enough when the objective is to avoid shooting an elderly. 66yrld Deborah Danner of the Bronx, this week’s victim of police terrorism, was shot and killed by an NYPD officer after allegedly lunging towards officers while wielding a pair of scissors and a baseball bat inside of her apartment. The fact that this happened in her home is just as relevant as what was in her hands, because it shows a distressed person in a space they ought to feel the safest. Why this senior citizen had scissors and a bat in her hands is still up for grabs. What we do know is that neighbors called police for help and told them she was an elderly woman with a history of mental illness. How popo went from courtesy, professionalism and respect or CPR, as indicated on their vehicles, to shoot the grandmother twice in the chest first then ask questions later is what Sgt. Hugh Barry has to explain to a nation exhausted from weekly police killings of Black bodies and a Community already victimized by generational trauma from having to witness their skin color and voice be treated without courtesy, professionalism or respect.  

The politics began when our Mayor and Police Commish reprimanded Sgt. Barry for not following protocol, but the questions were already lining up—Why didn’t he use his Taser instead? If he knew this wasn’t a robbery but a mentally ill senior, why didn’t he use his head? Did the dispatcher tell him she was emotionally disturbed? Does Barry have a history of not using his head? Was he promoted to sergeant anyway? With all the combat training a police cadet gets before earning his or her badge; much less, being promoted to Sergeant, did withdrawing back into the hallway and call for back up ever enter this officer’s mind? Back up here doesn’t mean the S.W.A.T. team and helicopter, but the help the afraid and panicking team. Do precincts have a division that addresses the mentally ill? Do they recognize over-policing as another form of mental illness? Do target practice images for police trainees look like Trayvon Martin or Justin Bieber? If Deborah Danner had been an emotionally disturbed old White lady, would he have shot her or reasoned with her? And if ISIL supporter, Ahmad Khan Rahami who reportedly detonated a bomb in Manhattan, planted another in Jersey while holding two states in hostage, got shot in the leg before NJ police was able to arrest him, why he is alive and not somebody’s grandmother? Nobody’s answering, but Black folk know. Hell, even woke White people know. The term ‘woke’ came out of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It means being socially conscious, not in denial; not avoiding reality, aware and talking about it; awake, not sleeping—woke.  Those of us who are ‘woke’ understand that the blame doesn’t stop at a trigger-happy cop, but police training or lack of. Because this isn’t the first time someone called the police for help where the response came in the form of bullets and not intervention. Look up another senior citizen, Eleanor Bumpurs who was murdered by NYPD and you’ll learn that her life was cut short because she totally lost it when her landlord wanted her out of her apartment for not keeping up with her rent payments. Just like Danner must’ve lost control when she saw it as an intrusion to have someone come in her home to try to get her out. Anyone who hasn’t been diagnosed with a mental disorder will lose it too when poverty, and years of feeling alienated and powerless get to be too much to keep wrapped up neatly and quietly for neighbors, landlords and a law enforcement that’s supposed to be there to protect them.

...What is it about the badge that turns well-intentioned police trainees into complete action twits? And is my mother next? Because she looks like Ms. Danner. She’s at the last stages of Alzheimer’s and has panic attacks like Ms. Danner. She lives with me, but has been known to wander out into the streets talking to herself like Ms. Danner. At her best, my mother was an independent, proud home owner. She was a socialite and would have been an opera singer had her life had taken a different turn...

There’s also the question of repeated visits to Ms. Danner’s home by police during her psychiatric episodes; and each time she was escorted to the hospital, so they knew her or at least knew of her. The Police Chief knows what I know; and that’s that people who suffer from mental disorders don’t like to take their medication. Was the officer aware of this? Was it part of his de-escalation training? Does schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s ever come up? What are cadets’ reactions when learning that being a police officer is not just about bang bang, shoot’em up but actually about protecting citizens? I have a neighbor who told me a police officer had driven by his house, saw him taking things out of his car from his own driveway and proceeded to ask him if he actually lived there? The cop was Black, but he was so busy showing solidarity with Blue that he forgot his melanin. A few weeks later he was encountered by the same robo-cop at the train station while dropping off his wife for work. It’s unclear whether the officer recognized him or not, but he kept flashing his patrol car headlights into my neighbor’s eyes. He then got out of his CPR and told my neighbor who has a medical eye impediment that he was parked on the wrong side of the station. When my neighbor told him that the headlights were hurting his eyes, the officer got annoyed and called for backup.  Fortunately, no one laid dead on the ground that day, but words like I was gonna give you a warning until you complained left my neighbor feeling embarrassed for the insecure cop. Because only a powerless man inside needs to bully people without badges in order to feel like he has power on the outside.

What is it about the badge that turns well-intentioned police trainees into complete action twits? And is my mother next? Because she looks like Ms. Danner. She’s at the last stages of Alzheimer’s and has panic attacks like Ms. Danner. She lives with me, but has been known to wander out into the streets talking to herself like Ms. Danner. At her best, my mother was an independent, proud home owner. She was a socialite and would have been an opera singer had her life had taken a different turn. But she loved dancing with my father who transitioned before I could learn to appreciate him. Dad may have taught me to have vision and to think out of the Black box, but mom still shows me what gentility, self-respect and determination looks like. Her mental challenges are mere distractions to who she still is behind all her episodes of confusion, fixation, compulsion, depression, memory loss, hysteria and yes, the flare-ups. The same type of outbursts all aging soldiers express when they’re feeling cornered and helpless; forgotten and disoriented. So disoriented that they find power in their lashing out. Without her medication, mom turns into a police statistic waiting to be added to the long list of either misunderstood or ignored Black faces that don’t get to tell their stories before bullets tell it for them. When I hold her by the hand, it’s not just a good son’s duty but a mutual awareness that either of us can be next on the mere basis of our skin color that seems to be intensely threatening to the one who resents the magic and power of people of African descent. Killing us makes us stronger. That is the thing that continues to be so mystical about us. Some of us haven’t been made aware of such, so they prey on their own because this is the only way they know how to lash out.

If not mystical, I find it interesting that Deborah Danner kept a public journal. “I smile rarely, but I am surviving,” she’s said to have written on social media. She’d been documenting her experiences with alternate realities since her 30s and maybe before then. My mother remembered her favorite poems by writing them down. Her collection is still to this day a piece of artwork, to me. Because of her penmanship and in the refined French language Haitians of her generation were taught in school prior to leaving the island for better opportunities. She has since lost her interest in French poetry and is now losing her ability to put letters together on paper. But she still sings and I record her voice every chance I get. If not for me, then for her granddaughter. She never wrote nor sings about the absence of family members at her side. But Ms. Danner made sure to let all of us know that mental illness caused her family and friends to distant themselves from her. Mom’s early retirement may not have looked like Ms. Danner’s inability to keep jobs. And leaving your beloved home to create a new one in a country that’s still trying to keep her promise isn’t the same as being placed in psychiatric care in ten different ways under a medical system that doesn’t include the on-going trauma that keeps Black people from ever leaving our scenes of the Crime. Certainly, when we talk about healing Black people the most important theory to adopt and apply is the one that considers institutional racism, mass unemployment, mass incarceration, miseducation, unaffordable healthcare, religious indoctrination and the doing away of cultural norms that helped unite and define our purpose on this planet. This is not a political statement. This is at the root of why young Black men and women feel a need to publically express their rage. They’ve watched their parents scream behind closed doors for the sake of assimilation and holding a job.

Deborah Danner also asked questions. She asked her social media followers why more wasn’t being done to house and treat the mentally ill; if prisons consider the mental health of their inmates; why so many veterans are being misdiagnosed when the label leans more on the emotional and not the fanatic? Questions a very sane person would ask. She’d often times describe her daily struggles with depression, flashbacks, sudden panic attacks, and the stigma she felt from having the tendency of crossing realities in such a profound way that she actually gained notoriety even before she was killed. This crossing of realities is something we Haitians don’t necessarily see as problematic. We see emotional disturbance as a spiritual maladjustment. This is why when my mother says she saw this person or was at that place while sitting alone in her room that I don’t dismiss it as babble. But we do see mental disorder in too many police officers like everyone else who’s willing to see it.