“Sociological Imagination” and the Policing of Mental Health
On November 3, 2018, Laudemer Arboleda, a mentally ill man, was killed by police officer Andrew Hall in Danville, a wealthy San Francisco suburb. According to the police report, Arboleda was knocking on doors in a cul-de-sac and, when police arrived, tried to “evade” them by driving away at a speed of six miles per hour, the speed of a person walking. The situation ended when Hall stopped Arboleda with a barrage of bullets, killing him. Eventually, Hall was charged with fatally shooting an unarmed, mentally ill man and was sentenced to a six-year prison term. The press reports also revealed that six weeks after shooting and killing Arboleda, Officer Hall killed Tyrell Wilson, a homeless, mentally ill man.i
We have been conditioned to think of Arboleda’s murder as a tragic accident, bad luck, or the actions of a “bad apple” officer, and much of the media reinforces this understanding. However, sociologists argue that such thinking obscures the real causes of social problems. Sociologist C. Wright Mills’s concept of the “sociological imagination” suggests that to understand what happens to individuals in society, we must place personal biography in the largest historical and social context.ii In other words, to understand what happened to Laudemer Arboleda, Tyrell Wilson, Walter Wallace Jr., Ricardo Muñoz, Angelo Quinto, and other Black or Hispanic men with mental illness whom police have killed, we must comprehend the roles of race, gender, social institutions, and social policies play in social problems.
Police killings of mentally ill people are not limited to a few isolated episodes. According to a Washington Post database of fatal U.S. shootings by on-duty police officers, police have fatally shot more than 1,400 people with mental illnesses since 2015.iii Indeed, one out of every five people police shot had a history of mental illness.iv
Race and gender play a role in this problem. According to a recent study, police are more likely to shoot and kill unarmed Black men who show signs of mental illness than white men who exhibit similar behaviors.v As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement has repeatedly pointed out, many police officers hold a prejudicial view of young Black men as dangerous, violent, and under the influence of drugs, which leads them to respond with excessive force. Seton Hall University professor Juan Rios explains: “Oftentimes what happens is our own implicit bias says that if there’s a Black man who’s in distress or in crisis, he must be on drugs, versus a white person who is in distress or in crisis needs help. . . . the reality is also Black men are more likely to be deemed as a threat than any other demographic. ”vi Implicit bias is "a negative attitude, of which one is not consciously aware, against a specific social group,"vii often stigmatized social groups like racial/ethnic minorities, women, or the members of the LGBTQ community.viii Implicit bias negatively impacts the way police and other professionals treat the people they encounter.
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that, in the United States, most of the institutional approaches to address the problem are unhelpful or even harmful. Most police officers are not trained to deal with a mentally ill person having a psychotic episode and may not understand how such a person’s reactions could differ from what they expect. Mental health experts agree that police officers should not be the first responders in these situations. Angela Kimball of the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that a far better solution would be a hotline like 911, where “there’s a mobile crisis team of behavioral health professionals who can help defuse the situation, connect people to treatment and get them on a path to recovery.”ix
Access to mental health services is another factor. Studies have documented that more than 50 percent of those living with mental health issues do not have access to mental health services or medication, and there are substantial differences in mental health service use between non-Hispanic white adults and other racial/ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic people with mental illness are less likely than white people to use mental health services (29.8 and 27.3 percent versus 46.3 percent for white people) and are also less likely to receive prescription medication (23.4 and 22.4 percent versus 41 percent for white people).xi The two demographics that have the lowest access to mental health services, mentally ill young Black and Hispanic males, are also more likely to have deadly encounters with police.xii
There is growing evidence of increased use of the correctional system in the United States to deal with the mental health crisis today. According to recent statistics, people with mental illness are overrepresented in U.S. jails and prisons. Nearly two million times each year, people with serial mental illness are booked into jails, and 2 in 5 people behind bars have a history of mental illness (37% in state and federal prisons and 44% held in local jails).xii Two-thirds of juveniles in the juvenile justice system have been diagnosed with mental health issues—a proportion several times greater than the prevalence of mental health issues among youth in the general population. xiv
It seems that while the diagnosis of mental illness increased in the United States, police officers and prison wardens, rather than mental health professionals, have become the frontline workers dealing with the mental health crisis. As John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, stated, “By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter. This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond."xv
We cannot make society safer at the expense of people with mental illness, particularly racial minorities. For this reason, new institutional approaches are required that not only disentangle the criminal justice system from the healthcare system, but also eliminate social stigma, implicit bias, and racial inequalities in both the healthcare and criminal justice systems.
- What is the advantage of employing Mills’s concept of “sociological imagination” when seeking to understand why the killing of mentally ill people by police is not an isolated occurrence?
- What role do race and gender play in fatal shootings of mentally ill people by police?
- What factors could be the cause of the racial/ethnic gap in mental health utilization rates?
- What changes are suggested to reduce the criminalization and fatal shooting by police of mentally ill people?
i Gecker, Jocelyn. (2022, March 4). “California police officer gets 6 years for shooting mentally ill man.” PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/california-police-officer-gets-6-years-for-shooting-mentally-ill-man
ii Mills, C. Wright. (1959). Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press
iiiPolice Shooting Database. (2023). Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
iv Police Shooting Database. (2023)
v Thomas, Marilyn, D., Jewel, Nicholas, P., and Amani, N. Allen. (2021, January). “Black and unarmed: statistical interaction between age, perceived mental illness, and geographic region among males fatally shot by police using case-only design.” Annals of Epidemiology, 53: 42-49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2020.08.014
vi Burke, Minyvonne. (2021, May 16). “Policing mental health: Recent deaths highlight concerns over officer response.” NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/policing-mental-health-recent-deaths-highlight-concerns-over-officer-response-n1266935
vii Implicit Bias. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/implicit-bias
viii Implicit Bias. (2019, July 31). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/implicit-bias/
ix Burke (2021, May 16).
x Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Racial/Ethnic Differences in Mental Health Service Use among Adults. HHS Publication No. SMA-15-4906. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma15-4906.pdf
xi Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015, p. 23
xii Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015, p. 25
xiii National Alliance of Mental Illness (2022, June). “Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System.” https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/NAMI_CriminalJusticeSystem-v5.pdf
xiv Office of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2017, July). Intersection between Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/model-programs-guide/literature-reviews/intsection_between_mental_health_and_the_juvenile_justice_system.pdf
xv Treatment Advocacy Center. (n.d.). “People with Untreated Mental Illness 16 Times More Likely to Be Killed By Law Enforcement.” Treatment Advocacy Center. https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/key-issues/criminalization-of-mental-illness/2976-people-with-untreated-mental-illness-16-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-law-enforcement-