So, I’m on the sofa dozing, half watching one of the news channels when a bulletin flashes on the screen informing me that a gunman has just burst into a Lakewood, Washington, coffee shop and proceeded to shoot and kill four policemen who sat working on their laptops as they prepared for their upcoming shifts.
And perhaps the worst thing is that I was not shocked by a gunman bursting into a public place and randomly shooting up the place—this phenomenon seems all to commonplace now—but that the victims were police officers; at the point that policemen themselves should begin to become targets for violence, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.
Then later another report came on updating the first which identified the gunman as one Maurice Clemmons and showed his picture. And when I saw that black face on the screen, it suddenly occurred to me that there was no way this negro was going to be taken alive.
But please do not get me wrong; don’t misinterpret my motives. I’m not writing this to condemn the police for shooting and killing him. The official version of events states that he “turned on police when he was finally confronted early on Tuesday,” and if that is so, the officers on the scene had every right to shoot back to protect themselves and anyone else who might have been standing nearby.
And furthermore, the victims’ families have my sincerest and heartfelt sympathy. I can only pray that they make it through to the other side of this tragedy with their spirits whole and intact. However, my ire is directed toward the system that allowed this tragedy to occur in the first place.
In reading around the web since this whole incident occurred, I have come across reports from several different sources which indicate that Maurice Clemmons may very well have been mentally ill, and in fact, he may have been mentally ill for some time.
I believe this whole incident to have been predicated by the ineptitude of families and the criminal justice system in dealing with those in our midst dealing with mental health issues.
Maurice Clemmons’s family members have gone on record in stating that they realized that something was not quite right for quite some while. And police and prison records indicate that previous to his 2000 release after then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee commuted his 108 year sentence, he had been diagnosed with a mental illness. However, between his family and the criminal justice system, there seems to be no indication that any type of treatment was sought or offered.
Perhaps I risk a bit of essentialism here, but often families, especially African American families (I am currently researching and writing a piece on African American children and mental health), tend to, for whatever reason, shy away from seeking the appropriate help for family members exhibiting signs of mental illness until it is far too late.
And how many people do you think are currently incarcerated who may be suffering from mental illness? Sure, there are many persons in prison who should be there. There are many persons in prison acting crazy simply because crazy is what’s hot in the streets right now. But in the same instance, there are some in prison who suffer from some mental illness, the symptoms of which caused the action that lead to incarceration.
However, currently our criminal justice system is designed not to treat these people, but simply to house them for a specified amount of time before they again turn them out into the streets untreated. And then when they do something really crazy, we scratch our heads in disbelief.
However, studies have shown that there is a large percentage of mentally ill people who are not being treated walking the streets, and as long as the mental illness goes untreated, the risk of serious violence escalates. What are we going to do about it? Perhaps, simply dealing with this problem will decrease violent crimes. It will, at the very least, prevent the senseless deaths of some innocent people.
Allow me to end with this caveat. I have a close family member who is currently serving 15-20 years in a state penitentiary, and he has spent a good portion of that time in solitary confinement because of violent outbursts. He was convicted of attempted murder after he, in a violent rage, ran several people down, to include two police officers, as he attempted to run over his pregnant girlfriend and her lover with his car. But his is not his first time being incarcerated for violent behavior.
The first time he was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days after he practically beat someone to death with his bare hands over a beeper. And he spent almost that entire time in solitary because of violent outbursts while incarcerated.
Before he was sentenced in this case, court appointed psychologists informed the court of his mental illness, and even informed the court that if he were not treated before being released, he was almost guaranteed to do it again.
As his family, we were not surprised; we had recognized that something was wrong when he was still a boy. At that time, his violent rages could be contained, but when he began to get a little weight on him and grew to well over six feet, there was nothing we could physically do to restrain him anymore.
However, instead of suggesting, or insisting, that he seek help, we dealt with it by praying for him and praying over him until sweat ran down our faces like drops of blood and just not mentioning it and staying clear of him. If someone just happened to get knocked slap out during the family reunion, it was their fault because they knew how he was and should have just stayed out of his way.
But in less than two years his sentence will be up, and he will be let out of prison without ever receiving treatment. What then? If history is truly the best predictor of the future, I just hope no one loses their life in his next violent rage.
Again, I mean neither to defend Maurice Clemmons nor impugn the actions of the Lakewood Police Department; I mean only to suggest that we rethink how we deal with mental illness in our society.