Fordham Urban Law Journal
he last several years have rendered issues at the intersection of race, mental health, and policing more acute. The frequency and violent, often lethal, nature of these incidents is forcing a national conversation about matters which many people would rather cast aside as volatile, controversial, or as simply irrelevant to conversations about the justice system. It seems that neither civil rights activists engaged in the work of advancing racial equality nor disability rights activists recognize the potent combination of negative racialization and mental illness at this nexus that bring policing practices into sharp focus. As such, the compounding dynamics and effects of racism, mental health, and policing remain underexplored and will be the foci of this Article. Lurking beneath the surface of these policing encounters is an issue of mental disability or, as I prefer to recognize this fluid state, mental vulnerability. Picking up from where my earlier Article, Racializing Disability, Disabling Race: Policing Race and Mental Status, left off, this Article will explore a contextually informed psycho-legal explanation for some of the policing incidents, which have attracted national attention, and others that have not. Specifically, my theory is that negatively racialized suspects (read non-White, in particular Black and Latino/a) who the police experience as defiant or disrespectful are constructed by police as “crazy,” regardless of their actual Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM) status.1
In such situations, the policing encounter is fraught. On one hand, police, expecting a certain level of deference, especially from people of color, often escalate a situation to the point that the indignation, or lack of respect, from the person stopped by police paradoxically reinforces the police assumption about their impaired judgment, behavior, and mental health. It is this felonizing process through which the deviant criminal subject/suspect is created. As I discussed in Racializing Disability, Disabling Race, Suspect Identity Construction (SIC) provides a fruitful lens through which to analyze such processes in a policing encounter—SIC is a lever around which an encounter is amplified.2 Such intensification in turn serves as a rationale for an elevated police response, regardless of the fact that an escalated response is likely the opposite of what would alleviate the building situational pressure. On the other hand, police encounters, which are transformed into confrontations through escalation and/or racism, may catalyze a range of mental vulnerabilities in the mind of even the most mentally healthy person of color. Racism is abusive—individually, systemically, and structurally. It is persistent. We know what abuse does to the body, mind, and spirit (cortisol, fight or flight, etc.). Even for the most mentally sound individual, such racialized police encounters are potentially debilitating and disabling. The racism-health link indicates the impactful nature of discrimination. The residue of this societal puncture builds up in our bodies and is corrosive, debilitating, and ultimately disabling. Thus, it is not unreasonable to expect that preexisting mental illnesses or new mental vulnerabilities might be activated or created in racially charged policing encounters.
Nelson, Camille, "Frontlines: Policing at the Lexus of Race and Mental Health" (2016). Articles in Law Reviews & Other Academic Journals. 896.