Police Brutality, Mental Illness, and Race in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Police Brutality, Mental Illness, and Race in the Age of Mass Incarceration

On November 9, 2014, two Ann Arbor police officers shot and killed Aura Rosser, a 40-year-old black woman, after responding to a domestic violence call. In the 911 call, Rosser’s partner, 54-year-old Victor Stephens, claimed Rosser had attacked him with a kitchen knife. According to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s report, Officers Mark Raab and David Ried discharged a taser and fired a shot simultaneously within 5-10 seconds of entering their home. After the Michigan State Police conducted its investigation of the shooting, County Prosecutor Brian Mackie concluded in a January 30, 2015 memo, “that when Officer David Ried shot and killed Aura Rain Rosser on November 10, 2014 he acted in lawful self-defense.”1

Rosser’s death reflects the deadly intersection of mental illness, race, class, and gender. Rosser’s killing resembled the deaths of many black men and women at the hands of the police. Like Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Natasha McKenna in Fairfax County, and Terrance Moxley in Mansfield, Ohio who all died in encounters with police, Rosser also lived with mental illness. Mackie’s memo acknowledges that Rosser “suffered from serious mental illness.” The Michigan State Police also reported in their investigation that the AAPD had a history with Rosser and knew of her illness.2

While Prosecutor Mackie’s decision effectively foreclosed the option of prosecuting Ried for killing Rosser, the circumstances of her death raises questions about the relationship between mental illness, race, and policing in Ann Arbor: what is the police protocol for handling crises when someone living with mental illness is involved? Are police trained to do so? Rosser’s, Ford’s, McKenna’s, and others’ deaths raise larger policy and scholarly questions for policymakers, scholars of mental health, policing and mass incarceration, and activists who care about these issues: Why are police officers put in position to intervene in medical and domestic crises without the assistance of psychologists and social workers? Should the police be the first responders? The most important questions for scholars, policymakers, and activists is: How did we arrive at the point where police intervention in medical crises, especially for African Americans, becomes a life or death situation? What policies have produced Aura Rossers? What system produces Ezell Fords?

It is important to examine the historical developments of mental health care and mass incarceration in the mid-to-late 20th century to address the large structural questions. The combination of deinstitutionalization, mass incarceration, and the decline in the welfare state created during this period have contributed to the production of these deadly outcomes. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander and historian Heather Ann Thompson have offered useful analyses of the advent of mass incarceration during this period. Scores have produced scholarship documenting the decline of the welfare state as well. While historians have produced much work analyzing the rise in the war on crime, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of blackness in the mid-to-late twentieth century, they have paid less attention to the deinstitutionalization that occurred from the 1950s and through the beginning of the 21st century.3

Activism against deplorabe conditions in institutions like Willowbrook (most famously) helped drive deinstitutionalization, but wasn't a simple process. (Disability History Exhibit/DHSS Alaska)
Activism against deplorabe conditions in institutions like Willowbrook (most famously) helped drive deinstitutionalization, but wasn’t a simple process. (Disability History Exhibit/DHSS Alaska)

Journalist Harry Cheadle reports that the asylum population in the U.S. declined from 558,000 in 1955 to 45,000 in recent years. Several factors contributed to the decline of mental health institutions in the U.S. Pharmaceutical companies produced new psychotic drugs that allowed the mentally disabled to treat themselves outside of the asylum. The disabled secured the right to decline institutionalization, with the exception of those suffering from extreme cases of mental illness. Harmful transformations in politics and the economy also forced the closing of asylums and clinics. Fiscal crises forced state governments to slash funding for mental health institutions during the 1970s. President Ronald Reagan’s policies did little to address the mentally disabled and deinstitutionalization. In 1981, Reagan abolished the Mental Health Systems Act signed by President Carter. The MHSA provided federal funding for community mental health institutions. Reagan’s legislation established block grants for states. According to Kristin Brooks Hope Center (KBHC), a suicide prevention organization, Reagan’s repeal amounted to a 30 percent cut in federal funding. The decline in federal funding and continued closing of mental health institutions helped feed other social problems such as homelessness. More Americans living with mental illness also entered into the criminal justice system. Mother Jones’s Deanna Pan reports that by 1984, 30 percent of the prison population suffered from mental illness.

The decline in the asylum population from the 1950s to our contemporary moment correlates with the increase of the growth of the overall prison population during the same period. While it is arguable that the criminalization of poverty and mental illness are primary drivers of the development of mass incarceration, the war on drugs created greater chances for contact between the mentally ill and the police. Cheadle cites Mark Salzer in his article: “The problem, he [Salzer] says, is that the war on drugs and other law-and-order policies ratcheted up the imprisonment of addicts and poor people, and the mentally ill are more likely than the general population to be poor or addicted to drugs.”

Much has been discussed about the transformations of policing in the United States since the mid-1960s. Many observers, policymakers, activists, and scholars view police killings in the historical context of the criminalization of blackness (and more specifically in Rosser’s case, black womanhood) and poverty, militarization of police forces, and stop and frisk. Yet, fewer have discussed the historical impact of deinstitutionalization and how transformations in public policy around issues of mental health may also be part of the legacy of the carceral state. Aura Rosser and Ezell Ford remain deadly reminders of this intersection/legacy.

So what could be done to address the deadly outcomes of deinstitutionalization, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of mental illness and blackness for black men and women living with mental illness? What could be done to prevent more Aura Rossers? Observers like Colin Daileda have pointed to crisis intervention training (CIT). CIT is a specialized training program designed to help police officers interact with citizens living with mental illness. Mental health scholars Amy C. Watson and Anjali J. Fulambarker also view CIT as a strategy to keep the disabled out of prison. “Resources are being devoted to approaches intended to stem the flow of persons with serious mental health illnesses into the front door of the criminal justice system …” CIT is “one ‘front door’ approach being implemented by police departments across the country.”4

Crisis Intervention Training activism. (Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside)
Crisis Intervention Training activism. (Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside)

CIT, according to the Department of Justice, is intended to “help improve officers’ ability to recognize mental illness, slow down and de-escalate their responses, and use less force against persons in mental crises.”5 Police officials in Memphis developed the program in 1988 after officers shot and killed a man with a history of mental illness. Many mental health scholars, the DOJ, and police officials see CIT as a useful strategy. The International Chiefs of Police deemed CIT a “promising practice” in 2010.6

Yet, as Watson and Fulambarker argue, CIT is only a “front door” solution. CIT is limiting and a short term solution. Rightfully calling crisis intervention training a “band-aid” fix, disability rights activist Leah Harris argues that police would be prudent to develop “trauma-informed” tactics as well. Harris argues such an approach would pay attention to not just the trauma that accompanies police interactions, but the trauma that is produced by systemic racism, classism, sexism, and what she calls mentalism.

While Harris fails to offer a concrete model that incorporates trauma, her insights regarding trauma-informed policing are consistent with scholars Amanda Geller’s, Jeffrey Fagan’s, Tom Tyler’s, and Bruce G. Link’s conclusions in their study on the effect that policing has on young urban men’s mental health. According to their 2014 study, “participants who reported more police contact also reported more trauma and anxiety symptoms.” They concluded that young black men who were subjected to personally invasive policing such as stop and frisk experienced more “emotional trauma” and that they could “trigger stigma and stress responses and depressive symptoms.”7 Essentially, the policing that young black and brown men had to experience while living in a racist society not only traumatized them, but could also negatively affect their mental health.

It has become obvious to many scholars and activists that it is necessary to confront the criminalization of blackness and poverty to address the racialized caste system that is embedded in the new Jim Crow. However, scholars, activists, and policymakers can no longer afford to just concentrate on race and class if they hope to prevent more police-related deaths among African Americans and other people of color. Disability and sexuality require attention as well. We should question the normative assumptions governing our perceptions of those diagnosed with mental illness as the “other.”8 Decentering normative understandings about ability, race, gender, sexuality, and class may lead to the conception of a more humane protocol when dealing medical and/or domestic crises in both the short and long term.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right — Americans cannot expect police officers to address larger social problems. Americans cannot ask police departments to be the only institution to shoulder the burden of confronting structural racism, sexism, and mentalism and the decline of the welfare state. But we must keep in mind that reforming police tactics could help save lives in the short term, even if the long-term goal is dismantling the system of policing and mass incarceration that has wreaked havoc on people of color and cities since the 1960s.

Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Ben-Moshe, Liat, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey. Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014.

Human Rights Watch, Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in American History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 97, No. 3. (2010): 703-734.


  1. Brian L. Mackie and Steven Hiller, Memo to D/Sgt. Christopher Corriveau, January 30, 2015. The memo is included in the news story, “Read prosecutor’s 12-page memo on fatal Ann Arbor police shooting,”, accessed 15 May 2015. Return to text.
  2. Anonymous, People’s Retort to the Prosecutor’s Report, 6. For a digital copy of the pamphlet, go to Return to text.
  3. See Khalil G. Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011) and Michael W. Flamm’s Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Return to text.
  4. Amy C. Watson and Anjali J. Fulambarker, “The Crisis Intervention Team Model of Police Response to Mental Health Crises: A Primer for Mental Health Practitioners,” Best Practice Ment Health, Vol. 8, No. 2 (December 2012), 1.Return to text.
  5. George Fachner and Stephen Carter, An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department, (Washington, DC.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), 79. Return to text.
  6. Watson and Fulambarker, 1. Return to text.
  7. Amanda Geller, Jeffrey Fagan, Tom Tyler, and Bruce G. Link, “Aggressive Policing and the Mental Health of Young Urban Men,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 12 (December 2014), 2321. Return to text.
  8. See Nirmala Erevelles’s “Crippin’ Jim Crow: Disability, Dis-Location, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” for an example of this type of work in Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, eds. Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Return to text.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.