The Charles Kinsey Shooting Shows Police Still Have a Mental-Illness Problem

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Unfortunately, there is no shortage of recent, depressing violent encounters between the police and people with mental illness, many of those encounters ending in tragedy. But what happened to Charles Kinsey in North Miami on Monday is a particularly weird, distressing example — even though (thankfully) no one died.

According to WSVN in Miami, Rinaldo, an autistic man living in a group home (it doesn’t look like his last name has been published), had wandered out into the surrounding neighborhood with a toy truck in his hand. Someone saw him, mistook the toy truck for a gun, and called police, reporting that a man was threatening suicide. When police arrived, they found Rinaldo with Kinsey, a therapist who worked at the group home and who had gone out to search for him. (Based on the video and his name, it looks like Rinaldo is Latino. While it’s impossible to know for sure, it’s hard not to wonder whether a white guy wandering around with a toy truck would have elicited the same panicked call.)

There’s cell-phone video of the subsequent encounter, and where it picks up, Kinsey is laying on his back, hands in the air. Rinaldo is sitting cross-legged next to him, looking around, seemingly a bit confused about what’s happening. With at least one police rifle trained on him or on Rinaldo, Kinsey yells to the cops, trying to explain the situation: “All he has is a toy truck in his hand,” he calls out. “A toy truck. I am a behavior therapist at a group home.”

There’s every indication Kinsey did as the police asked, but it didn’t matter: while according to WSVN this exact moment wasn’t captured on the cell-phone camera, police shot him in the leg. Then, he said, they cuffed him and left him on the ground for about 20 minutes while waiting for medics to arrive. “As long as I got my hands up, they’re not going to shoot me,” Kinsey told WSVN from his hospital bed afterward. “This is what I’m thinking. Wow, was I wrong.”

The shooting is under investigation, so hopefully we’ll gain some insight into why an officer possibly would have opened fire on a man lying on his back with his hands in the air. But even just based on what we already know, this seems like still another example of police protocol failing as soon as it runs up against someone — I’m talking about Rinaldo, not Kinsey — who isn’t in the right psychological mind-state to immediately respond to police commands.

I’m speculating here, a bit — in the excerpt of video that was released, we don’t hear police command Rinaldo to do anything. But we do hear Kinsey imploring Rinaldo to “be still” and lie on his stomach, suggesting that police had asked him to do so, and that — understandably, given that he was an autistic man in an extremely stressful, unfamiliar situation — he hadn’t complied.

Over and over again in these incidents, this seems to be where things fly into chaos and violence: For understandable reasons, police are trained to quickly assert their authority over uncertain situations, to give clear, crisp commands and demand people respond to them. But they seem to be thrown for a loop, over and over and over, everywhere, by someone not immediately responding to their commands. They don’t always seem to know what to do about a situation that, in a country with a lot of untreated mental illness, they are bound to encounter frequently.

As I noted in my piece about the death of Kajieme Powell two years ago, so-called crisis intervention training, which provides police with specialized skill sets for dealing with various scenarios involving mental illness, focuses specifically on this issue: “Part of the training prepares officers for situations in which a mentally ill person doesn’t respond to commands the way most people do, and this includes training on when a softer, more gentle voice might help de-escalate a situation, as opposed to the louder, more imperative tone often used when interacting with suspects — particularly those seen as dangerous or noncompliant.”

On the one hand, it obviously would have been helpful if the North Miami Police who were on scene had had, and used, training specific to these sorts of situations — based on the video that’s been published, that certainly didn’t appear to be the case; it certainly looks like the police continued to treat this like an urgent, dangerous situation long after they had information, in the form of Kinsey’s pleas, suggesting otherwise.

But on the other hand, any police officer should (obviously) be able to tell a toy truck from a gun when they have an extended period to look at it, as the cops did here; should be familiar with the fact that not everyone can respond perfectly to police commands; and should listen when someone tells them that something which was called in as a gun isn’t, in fact, a gun. Something went really, really wrong here, and given the spate of similar recent incidents, it’s hard to view it as an isolated outlier.