On July 12 of this year, Denver police shot and killed Paul Castaway, a mentally ill Lakota Sioux man. His case raises awareness of two issues that are flying under the radar in the ongoing national conversation about police shootings: Over half of fatal shootings involve mentally ill people, and Native Americans are statistically more at risk of dying in police shootings than other racial groups. Castaway’s traumatic and horrific death is riveting his Denver community, and his last words are a haunting indictment of law enforcement in the United States: “What’s wrong with you guys?”
According to family members and witnesses, Castaway’s mother Lynn Eagle Feather called the police for help when her son started waving a large knife while he was intoxicated. This is often the first step in fatal incidents involving police officers and mentally ill people – frequently people are off their medications or experiencing breakthrough episodes of breaks with reality and other mental health problems. They may not be fully aware of what they’re doing and they pose a greater risk to themselves than others, but family members aren’t equipped to provide the help they need. Since few communities have a mental health crisis response unit, families resort to calling police in the hopes that officers can subdue their family members and help them get to treatment.
As is commonly the case, that didn’t happen for Castaway. When officers responded, the terrified man ran into a mobile home park around the street, where officers cornered him. Witnesses and family who had access to surveillance tapes claim that he was holding the knife to his neck, while police claim that he was posing a threat to officers, so he was shot four times, later dying at the hospital. Chillingly, witnesses report that he was forced onto his stomach and cuffed after being shot, despite his severe injuries. The much-loved member of the community left behind a son as well as other family members.
Advocates have risen in protest against the shooting – over 100 people rallied in downtown Denver to raise awareness of the shooting and ask for justice. His family is demanding full copies of video related to the shooting, and families of some of the witnesses are asking for counseling as well. Many of those who saw the shooting were children at play who were traumatized by the sight of law enforcement chasing and shooting a man right in front of them, especially when it was followed by brutal handling on the ground as he was put into cuffs. Members of the Colorado Chapter of the American Indian Movement, meanwhile, have rallied in front of the Denver Police Department to ask for answers.
Even when alerted to the fact that a subject is mentally ill – as happened in this case – police officers often respond poorly, illustrating the need for better protocols and training in addition to the long-term development of mental health crisis units. Cuts to mental health support services in the United States have left police forces on the front lines of providing support to the mentally ill community, and sometimes this involves paying a high price. Notably, Native Americans experience mental illnesses at a higher rate than the general population, putting them at greater risk of police interventions gone wrong.
Even without mental illness as a compounding factor, Native Americans frequently die at the hands of U.S. police. Though they account for .8 percent of the population, 1.9 percent of police shootings involve Native Americans. The black community makes up 13 percent of the population and 25 percent of police shootings – a truly shocking statistic – but in terms of death per million people annually, Native Americans rank perturbingly high on the list. While black people between 20 and 24 die at a rate of 7.1 per million, Native Americans between 25 and 34 follow close behind at 6.6, and 35-44 year old Native Americans are the next largest category of those who die in fatal shootings. The horrible statistics on police encounters for the Native community need to be addressed as part of a larger push for reforms in American policing, but the movement to talk about Native deaths hasn’t yet expanded nationally. Maybe Castaway’s encounter will act as the tipping point, rather than slipping below the surface of his small community.
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