By Juan Rios
The tragic death of Maurice Gordon is a bright red flag. That flag was unfurled and waved in full bloody view during the events that led to yet another unarmed Black man’s death at the hands of law enforcement.
As I watched the videos of Gordon’s interactions with police, as a practicing social worker I cringed at the missed opportunities to get him the help he most obviously needed. But those red flags were overlooked on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey on four separate occasions when police officers stopped Gordon.
If we continue to overlook the signifiers of mental distress and mental health issues those flags will just get redder with the blood of those we could have saved. Granted, police officers are not social workers, but you don’t have to be a doctor to know somebody needs one.
The Maurice Gordon case is a prime example of how mental health issues are overlooked in everyday interactions between law enforcement and the public due to a lack of adequate training and/or a lack of experience with, or an understanding of, available resources. Our first responders need to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of mental distress and mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, that’s nearly one in five adults. Of these 46.6 million adults, 11.2 million, roughly one in four, are said to suffer from Serious Mental Illness. And yet, we seem surprised and, as the Maurice Gordon case showed, thoroughly unprepared for the interaction of the police with those who suffer with mental health issues.
Given the sheer numbers, is it surprising that police officers as first responders might come into contact with any one of these 46.6 million people during the course of their patrol? With any of the 11.2 million that are said to suffer from Severe Mental Illness?
Perhaps it will seem even less surprising if we consider the serious lack of treatment for mental illness in the United States. Whether due to the stigma still associated with mental health care or a lack of health insurance, the number of untreated looms large. In 2017, among the 11.2 million adults with Serious Mental Illness, only 7.5 million (66.7%) received mental health treatment in that past year.
That’s 3.75 million people with a Serious Mental Illness who received no treatment during an entire year.
Men, by the way, who are far more likely to be engaged by the police, are less likely than women to enter treatment. And although young adults aged 18 to 25 years had the highest prevalence of Serious Mental Illness, they also had the lowest rate of mental health treatment among age groups at just 57%. The rate of treatment for African Americans and Hispanics as a whole was even lower at just 56%, compared to 70% for white Americans.
Given the prevalence of mental health issues in the United States, those deemed serious and otherwise, treated and untreated, would it not make sense to adequately prepare for interactions between those in mental health distress and law enforcement as first responders?
I am not suggesting that police officers should function as psychiatrists and social workers no more than I am suggesting that police officers arriving at a four-alarm fire should attempt to put it out. Arriving first to the fire, the police officer will attempt to save anyone he or she can — and call in the fire department. Likewise, police officers should be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental distress and episodes of Serious Mental Illness so they can call in a psychiatrist or social worker.
I do not know if Maurice Gordon was diagnosed with a mental illness nor do I know if he was being treated, accounts from the family and someone who identified as his girlfriend are conflicting. I will say, that in watching the various videos of Mr. Gordon as he interacted with police, he showed glaring signs of someone experiencing a severe bout of mental disorder and distress. His actions and answers, including telling a police officer that he was “driving to the end of the video game,” are compelling.
In addition, a friend in New York who was worried about Mr. Gordon called 911 to report that Mr. Gordon was in distress, and had asked “Do I look possessed?” That police officers on the Garden State Parkway in nearby New Jersey were unaware of the at-risk status of Mr. Gordon is, in itself, alarming and cause for concern as well as a call to strengthen interagency communication regarding mental health concerns.
But even without knowledge of the 911 alarm, police officers who interacted with Maurice Gordon were in a prime position to suspect— and act on— mental disorder and distress. Due to his behavior, twice Maurice Gordon was subjected to sobriety tests. But showing no signs of intoxication he was allowed to proceed. If a simple mental health status checklist was applied, Mr. Gordon might be alive today, having gotten the treatment he so obviously needed.
But it was not. And in this case, the first responders became the last responders.
Many cities in New Jersey have done more, including the City of Newark with whom I am working to make social workers, mental health services and training more readily available to first responders and its citizens through the Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, housed within the former 1st Precinct. Services there include the housing of a number of grassroots mental health organizations, holistic-based therapeutic services, supportive programs and trauma-informed treatment.
Cities throughout New Jersey as well as the New Jersey State Police need to follow Newark’s lead and make mental health and the treatment of mental illness a greater part of their public safety initiatives. The sheer magnitude of mental health issues in the United States demands a commensurate response and preparedness.
Professor Juan Rios, DSW, LCSW, is the director of the Master’s Program in Social Work at Seton Hall University and is a director of the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program, whose students recently led a protest on behalf of Maurice Gordon that garnered national attention.
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