On Monday March 9th, 2015, Robert Olsen, a white police officer in metro Atlanta, shot and killed Anthony Hill, a twenty-seven-year-old unarmed and completely naked black man.
It could have been my daughter.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Officer Olsen responded to reports of an unarmed and unclothed man banging on doors, crawling on the ground, acting deranged, and causing disturbance at an apartment complex in Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta.
That could have been my daughter.
According to DeKalb County Chief of Police, Cedric Alexander, Olsen was equipped with a Taser at the time of the shooting. Alexander admitted that the training that the police receive in regards to encountering people suffering from mental illness may require some bolstering.
Such bolstered training helped with my daughter. During the years of my daughter’s mental illness, while we lived in Atlanta, Officer David Mulkey, a retired policeman, was our eyes and ears in the neighborhood. He would watch for Helia, and would call us and let us know that she was safe. He talked to her and made a connection with her as someone whom she should trust rather than fear. He was a caring and compassionate man who wanted to help. We were and still are grateful for that.
Anthony Hill was not so fortunate. Yet he deserved no less care.
The New York Times reported: “Hill had served more than four years in the U.S. Air Force when he was medically discharged a few years ago, his girlfriend, Bridget Anderson, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. He was being treated by a VA doctor for bipolar disorder but stopped taking the medication a week or two ago because he didn’t like the side effects, including stiffening in his jaw, she said.”
Anderson, who was supposed to meet Hill in his apartment on Monday evening to celebrate their third anniversary, is devastated and shocked. She said that “she didn’t notice any changes in her boyfriend after he stopped taking his medication and she’d never known him to behave strangely.” Also she made a point of highlighting how Anthony greatly respected police officers and valued their difficult work.
Daily KOS reports that Anthony was a very talented musician, who though suffered from “bipolar disorder,” he seemed to be at peace with his condition. He tweeted on March 4th:
I am thankful to be something other than normal.
I don’t fight my circumstance,
I embrace it.
I love myself.
Anthony’s Facebook home page portrays a man full of life, who may have had challenges, but chooses to look at life from a positive angle. These are some of his postings:
“The media continues to paint the same horrific picture of mentally affected people but I have to tell you, there are so many shades in between the extremes. You might be surprised at all the successful people who “just can’t get right.”
To everyone in the shadows, I’m here to tell you, no man can ever define you, not even one with “Dr” in front of his name.
Love YOUR life!” Posted on March 4
“No man (or woman) is ever going to stop me from living the life I envision. I don’t care if he’s white, black or green because I know that my life matters. It starts with one. Empower yourself. Show these kids that #blacklivesmatter by living yours like it does.” Posted on March 6
“Some say I’m lost.
I want to ask them,
“What is it you think you’ve found?”” Posted on March 6
“You can see a mother’s love in a child’s eyes.” Posted on March 6
“A branch to a tree
We are to God
//Remember Your Power//” Posted on March 7
“I’m going to tell my story soon.” Posted on March 7
“I love myself” Posted on March 7
“They say, “live like Christ” but when you do they say, “Are you ok?”
Why can’t you see what I already know?
I am well.” Posted on March 8
“Where I once saw walls I only smell roses.” Posted on March 8
“A lot went on today. I am thankful.
— :) feeling blessed.” Posted on March 8
“Where i once saw death i only see life.” Posted on March 9 at 7:40 am, about six hours before he was fatally shot.
This tragedy breaks my heart and intensifies my greatest fear: it could have been my daughter, Helia, who became entangled with police officers who didn’t know how to calm a situation rather than escalate it. For my greatest nightmare as a parent with a child who has a mental illness is not about Helia’s illness— for illness leaves room for redemption—It is about what she has to encounter in the community around her, the insensitivity and cruelty of a society who has lost touch with acceptance, tolerance, compassion, mercy, humility, and grace, when it comes to those who might be a nuisance, or look and act awkward, or are hard to understand.
I want Officer Olsen and all his peers to know that Anthony’s life, and of those like him is precious. I want Officer Olsen and his peers to think of their own children and their brothers and sisters next time they reach for their guns when they are dealing with a person who is obviously ill. I remind them that if it were not for God’s grace, any of us could and would suffer from the same unfortunate fate in response to cruel blows of life.
And there are many of such persons that police encounter. Yet police don’t understand that these afflicted souls, estranged from society, are struggling hard to overcome their challenges. They long for helping hands, and live their lives through the darkest and deepest pain and suffering, incomprehensible to most of us so called “normal” people. They fight to overcome an enemy that no one sees, understands, and is able to overcome. But they keep persevering and wake up every morning, hoping that “today God’s miracle may reach them and win this battle for them.” They, like the rest of us, dream and have hopes of belonging, experiencing love, and finding comfort, rest and pleasure. They go through dark peaks, but with care and compassion, moments later, they can step into laughter and joy, swinging wildly from the pit of despair to the heights of delight.
My daughter certainly does.
If we as a society had not lost our human touch, had not given in to our lesser side; if our hearts still felt the pain of our neighbors, and our backs were ready and willing to carry their burden, we would not end their lives so easily to free ourselves from the challenges of encountering a disturbed soul who in some sense mirrors the truth about our inner-selves, our common pains, fears, and sins.
I don’t know the details of Anthony’s family life, but all reports indicate that his mother and his girlfriend loved him dearly, and that his death will impact their lives in a tragic and devastating manner. I know people like him are sons, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers. They are all created in the image of God, and their lives have value, purpose and meaning, despite the inconvenience they might be to those around them.
Helia’s life has value, purpose, and meaning. I adore her.
Daily Kos reports that “Police in the United States continue to shoot and kill mentally ill people with reckless abandon.” Daily Kos lists some recent shooting deaths of men and women, who suffered from mental illness as examples of cases that individuals could’ve been subdued and hospitalized instead of shot and killed:
- The latest victim, 25-year-old Lavall Hall of Miami, had only been released from a mental hospital for a week. His mother, struggling to care for him, called 911 for help. “If I (knew) they (were) going to kill my child, I would have never, ever called them,” she said. Lavall Hall, struggling with mental illness, had only a red broomstick when police shot and killed him. “When they left (here) they went home to their family,” Hall’s cousin, Walter Pinkins, told Local 10. “They (are) probably home eating, drinking (and) having a good time. But we (are) back here grieving. That’s not fair.”
- Earlier this month police shot and killed a mentally ill man who was throwing rocks and was surrendering to them.
- On Friday, January 23, police in Longview, Texas, tragically shot and killed 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard who had been in the lobby of the police station for an hour in a cry for help. In the newly released video, it’s clear that her shooting death was completely and totally avoidable. After speaking with officers and roaming around the lobby of the police station for ten minutes, Kristiana, who was struggling with mental illness, was subdued by an officer in the lobby until two additional officers entered. After Kristiana clumsily charges at the original officer, he shoots and kills her instantly. Why did he not handcuff her earlier in the minutes he had her subdued? Why did he not search her for weapons earlier? Why did he not Taser her with a stun gun? Why did he not use pepper spray? Why did he not simply grab her and subdue her again? Why did he not throw a chair at her, run from her, ANYTHING?
- Sadly, we are seeing instance after instance of men and women struggling with mental illness being gunned down by police. A wounded war vet, Brian Beaird was also unarmed and nonviolent when police gunned him down on live television.
- James Boyd, a homeless man struggling with mental illness, was mercilessly gunned down by Albuquerque police.
- Matthew Ojibade’s family called the police for help because of a psychotic episode he was having and gave police his medication. He died in their custody.
- Antonio Zambrano-Montes, homeless and struggling with mental illness, was throwing rocks when police gunned him down like an animal.
- Milton Hall was completely surrounded by police in Saginaw, Michigan. Confused and struggling with mental illness, they shot at Hall 46 times and killed him.
This list of human beings battling through mental illness but killed by police officers goes on and on. It is time for this madness to end. It is time to remember that human life is precious, sacred, magnificent and wondrous, even if it belongs to one who is marginalized by the rest of us. Our nation must consider humane training and constituting new policies and operating practices on how to handle people struggling with mental illness, on caring for them, and recognizing their God-given value.
For the next one could be my daughter, your daughter, your neighbor.
As a mother who has cared for her daughter for 15 years amid severest kinds of distressing episodes, I can confidently tell you that there are very few situations that cannot be managed with respect, patience, compassion and the love that never fails.