SFPD reinforces mental illness stigma in Hallidie Plaza suicide baiting
Baby boomers, like myself, might have first understood the stigma of mental illness during the 1972 presidential campaign when Senator George McGovern of South Dakota won the Democratic nomination. All the highest profile candidates (Kennedy, Muskie, Mondale, Humphrey) had turned down his offer for the Vice Presidential seat on the ticket. At last, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton had been chosen as the running mate. He would be on the ticket just 18 days.
During those intense 18 days, Eagleton would be pilloried in the public eye for revelations of mental illness and prior electroshock therapy. The country would register seismic shock with every new disclosure, and strategists would quickly advise McGovern that Eagleton could “endanger the country” if his depression came back. It was heavy stuff for the Cold War years.
Most everyone knows the rest of the story well: how Republicans Nixon and Agnew won in a landslide election, how the Watergate scandal would shut them down just two years later. Meantime, they may not know what became of Thomas Eagleton.
Missouri’s beloved Tom Eagleton would go on to be vigorously re-elected two more times to the U.S. Senate, finally completing his distinguished career there in 1987. After that, he would dedicate his retirement years to practicing law, teaching at Washington University, and bringing the Rams to St. Louis. He was brilliantly productive until 2007, succumbing to heart and respiratory illness at 77.
Not too shabby for someone with Bipolar II Disorder. Even though Eagleton had sought treatment for a manageable mental disorder (DSM-V) the only disgrace he suffered from was the stigma of mental illness.
Forty years later, the stigma against the mentally ill is still profound. Even though experts tell us that one in four of us will experience a mental disorder in any given year, and that almost 50 percent will during their lifetimes (Center for Disease Control) many still label the mentally ill as modern Typhoid Marys, real boogeymen like AIDS victims, witches, and lepers used to be. In spite of all statics proving that people with mental disorders are more likely to become victims of violence rather than perpetrators (Appleby 2001), many of us insist they are more dangerous.
Thus, the last thing we need is for those in law enforcement leadership roles to perpetuate that stigma. From PoliceOne.com, a popular Internet site for police, comes this little 2012 gem: “In fact, never during my 30 years of abovementioned experience in law enforcement, did I ever encounter any subject in a mental health crisis who was not under the influence of some chemical. Never” (Google Law enforcement interaction with the dangerously mentally ill).
Never? I am skeptical this could have been any police officer’s actual experience, and besides, wouldn’t substance abuse most likely make anyone more dangerous? As far as I know, substance abuse is not some kind of character flaw exclusive to the mentally ill, yet when we demonize them as “more dangerous,” we can justify using more force and offering less respect.
The article reminds me of the only police report I have ever read, begrudgingly sent from the San Francisco Police Department. Narrator Joe Toomey testifies, “The subject appeared to be under the influence of a foreign substance,” a phrase Officer Cezar Perez heartily reiterates, adding his own special flourish: the subject had been “swaying a little.” This never happened or else it did before the filmmaker began recording.
Not that I would expect much veracity from the SFPD who should have long ago received the Pinocchio Award. No matter how creatively one characterizes dishonesty, maybe as “active misleading” or “strategic omission,” the SFPD used the stigma surrounding mental illness to treat my son like a criminal rather than as the victim of a crime.
Dylan Yount was denied basic human dignity and medical services. He died, gravely disabled, morosely watching his life chances dwindle away with no trace of chemicals in his system. And what if there had been anyway? Should he thus have been denied treatment? Are police paid to enforce the law (CA Penal Code 401) or stigmas?
I hope the SFPD and all its lawyer-puppets wince every time they read this next sentence because I am going to write it until justice is served. My son Dylan Yount died in a suicide baiting, defined as the malicious encouragement of suicide. Google it. I did not make the term up. If the SFPD is hoping that time will ameliorate its culpability in the Fat Tuesday Hallidie Plaza Suicide Baiting of 2010 in front of the Forever 21 store— forget it. If they expect Dylan’s story will just go away — fat chance.
For a police department that says in its own literature it responds to an average 28.3 mental health-related 911 calls a day, its officers are abysmally unprepared. For a department charged to exercise its parens patriae obligation to protect the “seriously mentally ill,” its officers are disgracefully untrained. (Google SFPD workload estimates related to providing services to the seriously mentally ill population, pg 1-4)
SFPD officers violated all basics of controlling crowd behavior. SFPD officers boosted the crowd’s sense of well-being and their own by denigrating my son’s. They allowed a group of people interacting socially with one another to discriminate against a target they stigmatized as cowardly and weak (Social Identity Theory, Tajfel & Turner 1979). The SFPD relinquished all power to the bystanders by never separating them from their victim (LION Connects, Crowd control: Deindividuation on the suicide scene).
That Dylan’s death was supposedly never discussed is not something to brag about. Lieutenant Arthur Borges stated that no discussion had followed Dylan’s death, “not in this instance,” and Sergeant Mary Dunnigan, responsible for SFPD training in 2010 said, “We don’t necessarily talk about the incident.” A man died. Any man’s death should merit some review in hopes of saving future lives, especially when a victim has died during a crime. Yet Dylan’s death was nothing, just one more person in an officer’s average workload of 3.5 encounters with the seriously mentally ill every day (SFPD Workload estimates. . .)
The SFPD does not want to admit this inconvenient truth: Police in America have become frontline healthcare workers whether we like it or not. While the SFPD lawyers have been busy colluding together about what they will say in court, coroners already established long ago the link between hecklers encouraging suicide and jumping deaths (Coroner blasts suicide crowd). Diligent educators have been explaining the psychology behind a suicide baiting for almost 30 years.
Even anecdotal evidence corroborates the conclusions of researchers. In an ironic twist, one of the SFPD’s own — an off-duty officer calling himself legionare — angrily links Dylan’s death to the “assholes” and “idiots” yelling jump (Spacebattles, So i witnessed a suicide).
In light of all this, we might expect the folks working in suicide prevention to denounce suicide baiting, right? While many do, this would not be the case for San Francisco Suicide Prevention, the oldest “agency” of its kind in the United States.
I first heard of them in March 2010. By the fall of 2011, I was preparing to return to San Francisco for the first time since Dylan’s death. I had asked Eve Meyer, executive director of SF Suicide Prevention, if she could speak or send some to speak at Dylan’s memorial service, planned to coincide with the October 18 deposition of the filmmaker. Ms. Meyer and I had corresponded regularly, brought together through the suicide prevention efforts of Mooncricket Films (R.I.P. Dylan 02/16/10 Suicide Prevention Educational Doc/Part 1)
In no way had I ever suggested to Ms. Meyer any remarks or topic(s) to be addressed. I offered SF Suicide Prevention a modest donation to be made in Dylan’s name. With the exception of two irrelevant sentences, the following message is the response I received from her. I have hard copies of all our correspondence.
“I have been thinking about your generous offer to me about someone from our agency speaking at the October 18 service for Dylan,” she wrote on September 14. “I am afraid I will have to ask you a favor. I think our agency needs to be present to support you, but that we cannot officially speak at the event. Here is why: Next week the police department will begin an experimental health training program that is designed to help officers cope with situations involving mental illness more skillfully. We have been asked to be the trainers on suicide prevention issues. This is very unusual…”
And they were the trainers, and I do have a copy of the Police Crisis Intervention Training — 40-Hour Course ‘Breakdown,‘ being most interested by three sessions: Overview of Stigma, De-escalation Methods, and especially Suicide Interactive Case Study, by Eve Meyer, presenter.
“… I am afraid,” she had continued, “that if we speak at the service, the police might be unwilling to continue the training arrangement because they would misinterpret our reasons for speaking. But I want to reassure you that we will absolutely be there because we think it is important.” She concluded, “I hope you can understand and forgive me on this decision. I think in the long run it will help other people.”
And no one from SF Suicide Prevention showed up on October 18, 2011, in Hallidie Plaza, of course, and I do not understand or forgive her and I firmly disagree that her decision “will help others.” Something is fundamentally wrong with a suicide prevention “agency” that has people too cowardly to speak at a memorial service for a suicide victim.
And this anger re-surfaced all over again this last month when I learned the identity of the Co-Host for the SF Suicide Prevention’s annual fundraiser — Laughs for Life — (I could not make this stuff up if I tried). The Co-Host is the San Francisco Police Department. And the speaker for the April 24 gala? None other than SFPD Chief of Police Greg Suhr, himself. I can predict what will not be part of his speech and what will. The SFPD has tried unsuccessfully four times in the last decade to acquire taser weapons to use as “de-escalation devices” in encounters with the mentally ill.
It is like asking George Zimmerman to sign autographs at a gun show.