Christian Alexander Pean, a fourth-year medical student in New York City, had been anxiously texting his father in Houston throughout the morning to inquire about his younger brother, Alan Christopher Pean, a patient at St. Joseph Medical Center in Texas. The night before, on August 26, Alan had called his parents to tell them he was in the middle of a panic attack.
“We knew it was an acute mental health crisis,” Christian told Truthout. Alan’s parents implored their son to seek help, so Alan, a student at the University of Houston, drove himself to the hospital. While in the parking lot, he experienced a severe mental health episode and crashed into multiple parked cars. He was treated for possible injuries in the emergency room, and officially admitted to the hospital early the next morning, when he was transferred to the medical psychiatric ward on the eighth floor.
Alan’s parents, including his father, who is a doctor, flew up to Houston that morning from their home in McAllen, Texas. They immediately went to St. Joseph to corroborate Alan’s psychiatric health and implored the staff that he needed inpatient mental health treatment. But the hospital seemed bent on discharging him, Christian said. The staff did not even summon a physician to speak with Alan’s parents, claiming no one was available.
It never surprised him that police came so close to fatally shooting his little brother, a young Black man, in a space designed to care for people.
Frustrated that their concerns were dismissed but assured that their son was in good hands, Alan’s parents left to their hotel a few blocks from the hospital. A few hours later, they received a call from St. Joseph Medical Center: Alan was being discharged and was ready to be picked up.
In the short time it took his parents to walk back to the hospital, however, something terrible happened to Alan. His parents were told when they arrived that their son was in the intensive care unit. When Christian heard the news, his mind immediately leaped to horrifying possibilities; as a Black man living in the US, he had been conditioned to fear the worst for himself and his family.
“My dad texts me and says, something happened, he’s in the ICU,” Christian said. “And one minute after, I asked, did they shoot him? I instantly thought that was what had happened.”
Christian’s worst fears proved true.
Somehow in the 10 minutes between the call to pick up Alan and his parents’ arrival, two off-duty Houston police officers working security at St. Joseph were summoned by hospital staff to help them control Alan, who had allegedly become combative. During the violent encounter, according to the police and the family’s legal team, Alan struck the two officers in the head, leaving one of them with a concussion. After using a Taser weapon to subdue Alan, one of the officers unholstered his gun and fired a single bullet into Alan’s chest.
Fortunately, the bullet missed all of his vital organs. But the news utterly broke his parents. How, they wondered, could trained medical professionals have sicced armed police on their son, a registered mental health patient in the hospital’s care?
It was beyond devastating for Christian, too. But it never surprised him that police came so close to fatally shooting his little brother in a space designed to care for people.
“That’s what is sad about it,” he told Truthout. “I trusted my brother to the system, and I still inherently had this fear that something like that could happen to him.”
What happened to Alan was a horrific expression of how divestment from mental health services and the criminalization of mental illness can have a particularly lethal impact on people of color. Following Alan’s shooting, an online petition was started to collect statements from concerned health-care professionals. Many wondered why hospital staff escalated the situation by calling police rather than diffusing the situation through peaceful means, and some, including Christian, began posting the hashtag #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives.
Alan’s parents have since hired attorneys from the high-profile O’Mara Law Firm, the legal team that represented George Zimmerman in the trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Shawn Vincent, the communications director for O’Mara, said police are simply not equipped to handle people experiencing mental health emergencies.
The two Houston police officers who scuffled with Alan Pean were more than ordinary security guards, who usually are not armed.
“Cops are given a use of force spectrum, and they’re trained on when they can use deadly force, but [the training] doesn’t account for mental illness,” Vincent told Truthout. “It’s a problem especially if violence is part of the mental illness they’re suffering from.”
Yet police have steadily become the front line of mental health intervention over the last few decades. This change has even seeped into hospitals, where mental health services have broadly been decimated by years of divestment. Alex Vitale, a sociologist who studies policing at Brooklyn College, says this can be seen in the rise of uniformed officers in hospitals, where emergency room staff are increasingly unable to treat potentially violent symptoms of mental illness.
“Forceful interactions in hospitals [are] going to go up as more and more mentally ill people only have access to services when they’re in crisis and go to the emergency room,” Vitale told Truthout. “Hospitals are responding to that by creating more police presence.”
These days, hospitals like St. Joseph can hire off-duty officers in order to beef up their security. The two Houston police officers who scuffled with Alan Pean were more than ordinary security guards, who often are not armed and can only make citizen arrests. They were cops who were simply off the clock.
No public agency officially tracks the number of active police who also freelance as security, but a growing industry of firms that specialize in matching off-duty cops with hospitals, corporations, school districts and other entities may have those figures. One of the largest of these firms, Off Duty Services Inc., is based just outside of Houston, and places officers in medical facilities in the area and across the country. A representative from Off Duty Services told Truthout the company could not reveal whether St. Joseph Medical Center was one of their clients.
Police Step In as Mental Health Services Are Dismantled
Contracting off-duty cops to work security in hospitals can be considered part of the way police have been used to plug the hole left by divestment in mental health services across the United States. From 1986 to 2009, the proportion of mental health spending on inpatient and residential care dropped from 63 percent to 35 percent, and more recently, a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that from 2009 to 2012 budget cuts for state mental health spending totaled $4.35 billion. By 2013, a quarter of people who thought they had mental illness never received any care, mostly because they couldn’t afford it, according to a 2013 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Meanwhile, the federal government has spent over $14 billion through the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to fund the hiring of more than 125,000 officers and deputies since 1994. The glut of police has meant that firms like Off Duty Services, which was established in 2002, can peddle police to hospitals where the volume of qualified mental health staff has been cut. That’s a problem, because across the board, most officers get no more than eight hours of training in the police academy on how to diffuse tense interactions with mentally ill persons, according to The Intercept. This has led to predictably tragic results: The Washington Post found that over a third of unarmed people killed by on-duty police this year showed signs of mental illness.
Firms like Off Duty Services peddle police to hospitals where the volume of qualified mental health staff has been cut.
There’s much evidence, both anecdotally and tested, that police are quicker to use egregious violence on minorities. Officers are 21 times more likely to shoot a Black man than a white man, according to an investigation by ProPublica, and a psychological study from 2005 found that white officers were more likely to shoot unarmed Black people than unarmed white people.
Christian Pean says he would be remiss if he didn’t think, on some level, that implicit bias or prejudice had something to do with his brother’s shooting.
“One reason I was so quick to know he was shot is that I am hypervigilant and hyperaware of violence against Black men in this country,” Christian told Truthout. “But we in our family are not pitting ourselves against anybody. We just don’t want to see this happen to anyone else again.”
The decision by hospital staff to discharge Alan may also have had something to do with Texas’ particular history of poorly funding mental health training of hospital personnel. Texas ranked near or at the bottom of per capita mental health spending for the decade before 2013, and despite the legislature’s major increase of $259 million for the state’s mental health budget, there is still a major shortage of beds for inpatient mental health care. Additionally, said Greg Hansch, the public policy director at the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the funds had a limited impact on trainings for hospital staff in tactics to diffuse tense encounters with mentally ill patients.
“I think that’s an area the state needs to look at,” Hansch told Truthout. “They don’t have very strict requirements [for mental health workers in hospitals], and they’re just taking people who have very limited qualifications and who are not clinicians necessarily, just mental health workers. And that’s not good enough for monitoring this very vulnerable population.”
A Son, a Brother, a Loved One
The horror didn’t stop with Alan’s shooting. Immediately afterward, representatives from the Houston Police Department met with his parents and asked, irrelevantly, whether or not he had a criminal record. The department has since charged Pean with two counts of aggravated assault of a police officer, and set his bail at $60,000, which the family has posted.
St. Joseph staff has also limited his family’s contact with him. Christian told Truthout that between him, his younger brother, Dominique, and his parents, they’ve been able to see Alan for no longer than 45 minutes. In a statement to the Houston Chronicle, hospital spokeswoman Annette Garber said, “While we regret any incident in which parents, caregivers or police officers are harmed, we are certain that in this instance hospital staff and the police officers took all appropriate action in a situation with a dangerous patient.”
Christian wants the world to know his brother is more than a tab in a police file.
Over a third of unarmed people killed by on-duty police this year showed signs of mental illness.
“Alan is a great person, a kind person with friends and family trying to help him. And all that gets lost because the system is so broken,” he said. “They don’t realize when they do things like this and people get hurt, it’s about empathizing; it’s about putting yourself in people’s shoes and realizing this is a son, a brother, a loved one.”
Fortunately, Alan’s condition has greatly improved since police shot him on August 27. In a video posted on YouTube, he is seen alert and waving at the camera.
“I love you all,” Alan says. “Thank you all for praying for me. It’s made a huge difference, and I can’t wait to hug each and every one of you guys.”