Most of the world, connected tightly by digital devices, fiber-optics, and touchscreens, is well aware that we have a problem with use of force by law enforcement. In fact it is not uncommon for the average person in the United States to be acquainted with someone who has been the victim of brutal and outdated forms of police training and often times also to have been a victim themselves. This is especially true for people of color, persons with brain diseases, individuals who do not conform to gender-binary norms – and if you’re several or all of these things, life in America is feudal. And it’s all over the news – every day there are videos of more shootings, more police officers being released despite having blood on their hands. You know it sucks. Everyone knows it sucks – not least of all the police themselves.
But despite the huge public awareness of the problem, there is very little discussion or awareness of possible solutions. Why is that? Certainly, for many people, the mistake is to assume that there are no solutions to the use of force problem or to police brutality. This is actually quite understandable. Why should the average citizen, who is pretty much voiceless and without any influence over the police, be expected to understand how to stop police-related killings? In our western world the preference of media entities and of lawmakers is to stagnate any real progress in the realm of public safety or social equality, and subsequently tragedies continue to occur and the police continue to have suboptimal training. The police themselves (with the exception of some groups) have, without adequate education or funding or support, been absolutely unable to be the nation’s emergency psychiatrists, even though they are generally expected to be. But thanks to the federal and state governments there is no money or space for individuals with sickness, and the cycle of death and pain continues. The natural tendency of individuals at the level of the community, then, is to be upset – the media can make a lot more money by perpetuating and dramatizing that problem rather than helping to solve it. Those who remain unaware that this is a systemic issue of a lack of training continue to be upset with one another, and upset at the police, when disaster strikes again and again. It makes sense, even though it’s terrible. So it’s not surprising that the problem persists overall.
But there are solutions. Despite the fact that your local and state government have absolutely no time, money, or compassion for the individuals suffering at its own hand from mental illness, drug abuse, or personal crisis, there are a handful of individuals within that system who have helped to make some progress. And above and beyond that there are truly miraculous grassroots efforts to improve circumstances for individuals in crisis who have to face off with police – these are tiny groups of advanced trainers who teach law enforcement officials and police how to better handle these situations peacefully. Larger still is the contribution of individuals – doctors, nurses, social workers, advocates, community organizers, families, friends, clergy, artists – the burden continues to remain on medically unskilled persons to bear the emotional weight of their troubled loved ones. Out of these massive support networks, and the associated tragedies, a number of groups have emerged to offer the world’s most advanced training in crisis intervention. Various survivors of police encounters, police trainers and officers themselves, and other healthcare, emergency medicine, and psychiatric experts are the meat and bones of these entities, who are few in number but great in power. With great pleasure I am describing to you groups like Minnesota’s own Barbara Schneider Foundation – a nonprofit that focuses on the CIT model of crisis intervention.
I have spent some time speaking, teaching, and consulting with this group in particular about my own experiences. This past January I also wrote their director a brief proposal that articulated my understanding of the work BSF is accomplishing and my small vision for how it might be improved. In summary it is my opinion from experience and academic training that the brain sciences (and particularly the areas of affective neuroscience, developmental neuroscience, and psychiatry) will in coming years offer a revolutionary and unparalleled set of solutions and strategies for communities and nations to address the issues of brain disease, extreme personal crises, and the psychiatric stability of the public. The World Health Organization is of the opinion that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disability on earth. I would rather not cite statistics on how many persons with mental illness are killed by police every year – just go read about it yourself. The brain is the source of these mysterious issues, and it is through an accumulated world history of powerful, personal, and sometimes tragic anecdotes, combined with new and nearly mystical insights into our own existence through the study of the nervous system, that will begin to alleviate the suffering of so many. This must start with basic empirical research at the level of how mental health crises emerge in the brain, in the moment, and in the world – hence, ‘3 levels of the mental health crisis.’