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Advocates: Police Killings Highlight Mental Health System Problems

People around a Confederate Memorial
As curfew approached, the sun set over a Confederate memorial to Robert E. Lee, and protesters against police brutality and white supremacy grew in numbers. (Photo: Steve Humble/VPM News)

The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade have had a heavy impact on Black Americans throughout the country, including in Virginia, where protests took place through the weekend.

Richmond advocates have been demanding specific changes since the 2018 police killing of Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old teacher shot to death while experiencing a mental health crisis.  

Local organizers are calling for a “Marcus Alert,” which would require police to bring in mental health professionals when responding to people in crisis. They are also seeking an independent Civilian Review Board to oversee community grievances about law enforcement. 

Protesters
In 2018, o​​​​​rganizers with Justice and Reformation and the Virginia Defenders marched following the 2018 killing of Marcus-David Peters. (Photo: Princess Blanding)

“The community will trust better that the police are held accountable if they know their peers are reviewing the cases and not other law enforcement agencies, so not just in the moment of crisis do we want to build trust, but also over the entire system and institution of Richmond policing,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a social worker who organizes with the group Justice and Reformation.

A long history of racism and discrimination, beginning with slavery, have resulted in centuries of trauma for Black Americans. There’s growing research that this trauma can be passed down through generations. Bela Sood, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the culture of fear and mistrust that has formed around policing is a sign of collective trauma. 

“When you begin to hear mothers actually telling their children that they should not go out, that they should not be calling out a policeman or they should not step out of the house, it is very concerning to me because it tells me that this has gone beyond the usual thing of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sood said.

  She says that growing up in these conditions can have a detrimental impact on emotional development. 

“This is true anxiety which is coming from this collective feeling that we are sitting ducks for bad things to happen to us simply because of the way we look, and that is a very subversive thing which really undercuts the fabric of society as we know it,” she said.

Sood says prejudice among those in positions of power and leadership needs to be reduced at a systematic level through education and cultural sensitivity training.

“We have a collective responsibility to be celebrating those things which are positive attributes so that that particular minority is not just sort of bundled into a negative stereotype which then perpetuates these types of things,” she said.

Tiffany Jana, the founder of TMI Consulting and an author whose work focuses on promoting diversity and inclusion and eliminating bias in the workplace, says violent incidents committed by police and white civilians contribute to what they call a “human family trauma.” 

“None of this is new, and we are just exhausted,” Jana said. “When one of us is killed, we are all harmed, and the fact that one particular group is being targeted -- It’s just gross.” 

Jana says that the demonstrations seen across the country are a result of feelings of desperation and helplessness that have plagued the Black community for generations -- and have been exacerbated by the coronavirus.

“This pandemic is tearing through communities of color, through impoverished communities, and watching our brothers and our sisters and our siblings be murdered in the midst of all of this only adds insult to injury and only adds fuel to the fire.”

As protesters in Richmond and throughout the United States continue to mourn and call for change, Jana recommends that those who have not felt this trauma first hand pay close attention to the experiences of Black Americans. 

“It is important that you use your voice, and that you speak up on behalf of what you know is right. That you listen very closely to what it is that we say that we need and that you meet us in that place.” 

From 2013 to 2019, an estimated 124 Virginians were killed by police. Although Black people only make up around 20% of the state population, they made up 42% of police killings.

As of press time, an online petition calling for the Marcus Alert and Civilian Review Board has nearly 10,000 signatures.

*CORRECTION: We misspelled Tony McDade's name. It has been fixed.