Note: This column originally appeared online at WyoFile.com.
I watched the dash-cam video of Albany County Sheriff’s Corporal Derek Colling scuffling with Robbie Ramirez, attempting to taser him, then shooting Robbie to death, as soon as it was released. Upon hearing of Robbie’s death, I had wept for a solid hour. When I learned that he had a variety of serious mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) similar to mine (severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features), I was frightened.
A local grand jury declined to indict Colling, who has also been cleared of two on-the-job killings in Nevada. He will likely not face federal prosecution either.
Some see this as a salutary conclusion — proof that the system is working. I am not one of those people.
The confrontation between Colling and Ramirez should never have happened. Vulnerable people should be cared for by our society and its institutions, not subject to easy, sudden and violent termination by organs of the state.
We — police, mentally ill people and all citizens — need to re-examine our beliefs and behaviors. Doing so requires a better understanding of the internal experiences of mental illness at its worst. In that spirit, I briefly present some of my own story.
In my late 20’s I began experiencing increasingly complex feelings of paranoia and excessive amounts of energy. Eventually I came to hear bizarre and garbled ideas come out of my own mouth. My roommates tried to help. They drove me to the hospital. But eventually they grew so frustrated with my erratic behavior that they evicted me.
My work performance plummeted. I lost multiple jobs, close friends, colleagues, and romantic partners — everyone but my immediate family. My mind devolved into a chaos of wildly unreasonable views. I cycled between feeling superhuman and like God’s most worthless creation.
It got much worse. Auditory hallucinations accompanied my deteriorating state. In February 2014, while sitting in my apartment alone, I became convinced that a zombie apocalypse had arrived and that an elite sniper team was pursuing me, so I attempted suicide with a handful of pills, a steel hammer, and an unwashed hunting knife.
Through all of that, I hurt no one physically but myself. The point here is not to titillate with gore, and not to elicit pity, but, rather, to invite a deeper, empathetic knowledge of where I and others like me are coming from.
I was raised in a safe neighborhood in Idaho by educated parents with pretty good jobs. I graduated from a top college and received an advanced degree, eventually working in civil rights, education, and philanthropy. I am also tall, white, male and still young.
The privileges our society affords such demographic status could not curtail my biological malfunctioning, but they certainly shielded me, I believe, from prolonged incarceration or lethal force by police. I have been involuntarily committed to the mental wards of hospitals five times in two states and three jurisdictions. I have been confronted by a SWAT team with guns trained on me, hogtied, sedated, and strip-searched by strangers.
Once, I mistakenly believed medical staff intended to literally execute me with a poised and loaded syringe. Two cops stood waiting on the other side of my bed, and so I decided to go to jail instead. I was charged with damaging a hospital sign (the provocation that had brought the police and syringe in the first place.) The charges were later dropped.
A short time later, I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for wandering into a family friend’s house I used to rent. That was, as they say, a necessary wake-up call.
We, the severely mentally ill, don’t fully live in the same world of perception, reasoning, and experience that everyone else does. It is confusing and horrible to live this way a lot of the time, medicated or not. It took 15 years for me to find the right balance of medicines, and I still need occasional adjustments.
Serious anti-psychotics, it must be recognized, can also reduce cognitive skill (goodbye to jobs where you think a lot, which is almost all of them), induce exhaustion (goodbye to recreation), and even inhibit libido (goodbye to essential portions of a love life). While I did not experience all of these side-effects, it’s still hard to accept treatment, though I did.
Not everyone is as fortunate as me. Often the pain and suffering of women and people of color with disorders like mine aren’t taken seriously. This is a common aspect of structural oppression, blocks access to care and leaves those without care vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many people simply can’t afford treatment of any kind. Some self-medicate with dangerous chemicals and alcohol.
We need law enforcement to learn from medical professionals and directly from the diverse community of people with mental illness. We need to recruit and retain law enforcement candidates who are willing to learn and create behavior and procedures from this education. We also need to dismiss the social Darwinists and cynical authoritarians who choose not to evolve.
We can’t, of course, expect to turn our police forces into shrinks with badges, though there are worse ideas. We already ask them to stop terrorists, bust pot dealers, mentor children, and provide directions to lost out-of-towners. But we can expect police to learn how to de-escalate dangerous situations. Peace officers need to understand that, beyond simply not wanting to get shot, people like me might also be irrationally afraid. And they need to know that their escalation of that fear just makes the situation worse for everyone involved.
We need affordable, if not free health care. We need authentic, effective outreach to mentally ill people. We also need an entire community that refuses to look at homeless people muttering to themselves as human trash. We need to see each other as human beings worthy of dignity and to keep our most vulnerable neighbors upper-most in our minds.
With that, Robbie Ramirez might still be alive.
Jason Stenar Clark is a poet whose work has appeared in Brickplight, OFF BY EIGHTY, News From Nowhere, The Zine, Section 8 Magazine, Slink Chunk Press, The Best American Poetry blog and The Rawlins-Times. He received a B.A. in Politics from Oberlin College with High Honors and holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming. He resides in Laramie.