What No One Says About Laquan

“It’s terrifying to think that someone with a severe mental illness like me would be in crises and have to fear for my life when 911 was called.” –

Erika J. Kendrick, Suicide Awareness Advocate

I avoided watching the Laquan McDonald* police shooting video for several months after it was finally released. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to watch another Black boy lose his life on camera. 

Yes, I said boy.  Yes, I fully understand that a seventeen year old is old enough to drive, old enough to enlist in the military, sign a contract in most states, or even old enough to father a child.  A seventeen year old is still too young to vote for the next president, too young to buy his first beer legally.  Most seventeen year olds are in high school, live with a parent or guardian and are far from independent.  After representing seventeen year old boys over and over again in court, I can say without hesitation, they are all far more “child,” than “man.”

Yes, to me, he was a child. Much like former President Barack Obama once spoke of Trayvon Martin, Laquan could have been my child.  So yes, Laquan McDonald, was a seventeen year old child who lost his life as a result of sixteen shots.

“Sixteen shots.”

I’ve heard this refrain over and over again in protests, in discussions and on news broadcasts in the years since the footage was released of the killing.  It normally came up in the context of race and policing.  “Another white cop killed another Black person.  When will it end?”

Race. Obviously, race is at the crux of the case.  However, I believe if our the conversation begins and ends there, I think we have missed another glaring issue.

This was a mental health crisis.

When I first watched the video, that is what I saw, not a Black man being gunned down by a racist white cop.  I saw a teenager in the midst of a textbook behavioral health crisis.  What I saw was a number of police officers who harmed instead of helped. I saw a mentally ill victim who was vilified and quickly executed.

In my practice, similar occurrences are fairly common: a family member who suffers from PTSD, as it is reported Laquan did, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or an undiagnosed mental illness or personality disorder, grabs a knife and starts waving it around. The person threatens suicide.  Sometimes the ramblings are incoherent.

Usually the incidents played out in a family home.  Only two of the cases I have worked on or had personal connection to, involved situations that spilled out into the streets.

Two ended in death at the hands of police. 

I only know of one situation in which an extraordinary officer took the time, patience and compassion to talk the person in need of mental health treatment into lying down on the ground and willingly accompanying police to the hospital. 

By the time I watched the McDonald video, I had probably heard rumblings of Laquan’s troubled childhood and his marijuana abuse.  I had heard mentions of PCP being in his system.  But, what I saw was a young man who was behaving strangely, but walking away.  It was as if he was oblivious to the police cars swarming around him.  I didn’t know about his number of learning disabilities, his various mental health diagnoses or his repeated hospitalizations in mental health facilities. 

Still, I suspected he was in the midst of a mental health crisis in a manner of minutes.  Without any mental health training, no medical degrees and no experience in social work to aid me, I recognized it for what it was because I had seen it before. 

Hadn’t Van Dyke seen it too? Haven’t we all? 

You see a disheveled homeless man muttering to himself and walking in circles. You say, “Schizophrenic” and continue your commute.

You see the teen girl whose emotions are always too extreme for the situation.  You mumble to yourself and dismiss her as “bipolar.”

Whether our split-second, so-called diagnoses are correct or not, we recognize crisis.  We see it often.  We know what it looks like.  Why didn’t these cops?  I would imagine police see mentally ill people dozens of times a day.  Yet, this seasoned officer had no tools at his disposal to calm this young man down or to deescalate, to neutralize? He spoke no words. He simply fired. Sixteen shots.

1 in 4 Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness, meaning either you or someone you love is mentally ill.  Laquan lost his life because he was criminalized.  He was Black and male and young and strong and therefore a threat to be neutralized, rather than a psychiatric patient who needed to be treated.

When we simply make Laquan’s death solely a black and white issue, we miss the true danger of this situation.  This is not about a rogue, racist cop. This is about insufficient mental health training and a culture of policing that lacks empathy and compassion for those who don’t look like or act like the responding officer.

 *Laquan McDonald was a seventeen year old Black male who was killed in a police-involved shooting in Chicago, Illinois on October 20, 2014. HIs death was captured on video. The video was withheld from the public until November 26, 2015 after a long cover-up by top officials in the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department. This case received national media attention.