Why a ‘combative’ 5-year-old was shackled and cuffed by New York police officers
by Ben Branstetter, The Daily Dot
May 12, 2015

Throughout the cascade of horror stories of cops killing people with uncaring glee or cold calculation, it is clear a poisonous culture is present in police departments across the country. The consistent mistreatment of perpetrators—even when it doesn’t result in a death—highlights a lack of either motivation for police to connect with their communities or the proper training on how to do so.

While certainly far from true of most officers, law enforcement in this country has a problem teaching police how to treat people like they are human.

The consequences of this neglect are largely and disproportionately felt by black communities, but they extend into other margins of society, as well. There also exists a lengthy and storied history of how police handle the mentally ill, including children with developmental disabilities.

In late April, 5-year-old Connor Ruiz was handcuffed and shackled by New York State Police officers for being “combative” and “out of control” during his special needs class. Although the restraints might seem extreme, Connor’s treatment is actually in line with policing attitudes toward the mentally ill.

One of the great crimes of our criminal justice system is the degree to which it has supplanted the mental health system. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of male inmates and three-quarters of female inmates suffer from a mental illness. In fact, the mentally ill population in prison is 10 times greater than that in hospitals.

Meet some of the people who might be on the first flight to Mars Before police can put them behind bars for a disability, however, mentally ill people also face a far higher chance of being shot by police. Half of all people shot by police are mentally ill.

For many officers, this might mean bringing themselves down to reality first. Starting last February, NYPD officers have been attending day-long seminars on how to handle tense situations. Although the tactic has been criticized by some officers for presenting its own risks, the seminars reportedly suggest officers close their eyes, take a few breaths, then make a decision.

The attempt to calm officers before they act has been criticized by some officers as a “criminally negligent” move that could put officers in danger. “Learning self-calming and relaxation techniques should be part of every officer’s training,” said one retired blue blood. “But not for use on the front line.”

The battle stance of an officer fearing for his life is often the last thing a mentally ill person encountering a breakdown needs in order to prevent a violent backlash. In Colorado, most police officers have gone through Crisis Intervention Team training which instructs officers “in the recognition of mental illness, to enhance their verbal crisis de-escalation skills, and to provide more streamlined access to community-based mental health services.”

After a decade of implementing the program, Colorado saw a significant decrease in SWAT team deployment and a decrease in the mentally ill people put in prisons. The program benefits officers as well—officers trained in CIT are 80% less likely to suffer an injury from a suspect. As one Colorado sheriff put it, “barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn’t work.”

The lack of acceptance among some officers for this basic truth—even in the face of recorded success from programs like CIT—is clearly rooted in a deeper paranoia officers feel about the people they’re tasked with protecting and serving. Despite a nationwide decrease in the number of officers killed in the line of duty, police departments are demanding increased privacy and protection from supposed backlash.

Earlier this year, a collection of police chiefs demanded the Google-owned traffic app Waze remove a feature allowing users to report where and when they see a squad car citing concerns they could be stalked. Last month, Arizona state legislatures passed a bill forcing police departments to hide the identity of an officer after the officer in question had been part of a violent or controversial incident to settle similar concerns of reprisal.

So it’s clear many officers trust their communities even less than many communities trust their police. This toxic environment breeds an antagonistic atmosphere between officers and citizens, one that does not bode well for mentally ill perpetrators who might already struggle to deal with social cues.

One of the disorders most affected by a stance taken by police is autism. According to an FBI report, autistic persons are seven times as likely to have interactions with police than the general population and, as any parent of an autistic child can tell you, do not typically respond well to apparent threats or aggression.

Clearly, Ruiz is the victim of such force-first thinking. So was Anthony Hill, a 27-year-old Atlanta man suffering from bipolar disorder, who was shot to death by an officer while wandering naked around his apartment complex. So was Jason Harrison, a schizophrenia patient shot dead by police officers after he refused to drop a screwdriver.

Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments over whether police stations needed to implement programs that consider how to help the mentally ill in the same way libraries and post offices must have wheelchair ramps. Doing so might force officers to consider how to bring a situation down without pulling out their firearms. As is the case with so many reforms police officers fight, it’s good for them and the people they’ve sworn to protect, too.


Ben Branstetter is a 25-year-old writer living in Central Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared on The Daily Dot, Thought Catalog, The Useless Critic, God of Lamb, and he has appeared on HuffPo Live. He can be found on Twitter @BenBranstetter and can be contacted through email at branstetterb@gmail.com. His hobbies include the ukulele, chain smoking, and hating Pennsylvania. Ben lives with his girlfriend and her two children.


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3 Responses to “combative”

  1. 1 matt
    May 18, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    You’ve often associated the Reagan era war-on-drugs with the increase in incarcerations in America, but that era also brought the release of many mentally ill persons from controlled mental health facilities and put them out on the streets, which also had the unintended consequence of increased incarceration rates of the mentally ill.

  2. May 18, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    The increase in the number of people suffering from mental disorder in the streets seems difficult to correlate with the “war on drugs” initiated by Nixon and Reagan. It seems rather due to a change in therapeutic approach to mental illness. In many countries, since the end of the 1970s, therapists have advocated for care in open environment rather than in institution, relying on more and greater effectiveness of medical treatments. Institutionalization was restricted to the most serious cases.
    The idea is not bad in itself, as long as the patient takes well its treatment. Problems arise only if the patient stops to take his medication and this causes new crises. Crises that most police officers do not know how to handle with, either because that nobody has taught them to do so or because they feel that this doesn’t belongs to their tasks.
    Add to this that mental illness scares a lot of people, including police officers, and left them clueless. It’s not surprising, therefore, that these same police officers resort to the only thing they know when they are confronted with a situation potentially at risk: the use of force that precedes the sending of the person in the judicial system, where he/she has no place.

  3. 3 Frank Manning
    May 18, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    “…law enforcement in this country has a problem teaching police how to treat people like they are human.” Seems that some police officers actually lose their humanity during their training, becoming soulless automatons who behave more like an army of occupation in many poorer communities and racial ghettoes. Their task switches from “protect and serve” to “repress and subjugate.” Hence so many people today believe the slogan prominently displayed at a protest in Toronto not too long ago: “Cops are not people.” Glad to see some departments are finally realizing that their training is part of the problem.

    Matt is right about the timing of the release of many mental hospital inmates in the 1970s and 1980s, and hansip90 is also correct that the increase in the number of mentally ill people on the streets is not correlated with the war on drugs. I lived in NYC at that time, and there was a sudden huge increase in the number of homeless people in the city in the late 70s-early 80s. This increase followed several court decisions ordering the release from mental hospitals of all inmates who were not convicted of any crime. Sadly, that court order did not mandate some alternative form of dealing with or housing people who were too insane to function in society. All these mentally ill people were freed but had nowhere to go and no way to generate an income or find some living arrangements. So they wound up homeless and unmedicated. When they acted out their insanity in public, the only recourse available to the community was police action. Here again we have proof of the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Racism plays a big role in police violence against “marginal” people. I could not help noticing that the 5-year-old boy’s last name is Ruiz. I bet the situation would have been handled differently had the boy been a non-Hispanic white child.

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