What We Don’t Know About Policing, Race and Mental Illness

A promising young man went on an inexplicable rampage. Could better training and data on dealing with people in crisis have prevented cops from shooting him?

Photo: Courtesy of the White family

No one knows what caused Elwood Edwards White to snap. In the afternoon of Sunday, May 20, 2012, the 22-year-old black man walked into the middle of a busy intersection in Oceanside, California, carrying a cinderblock, the pockets of his gray gym shorts filled with rocks.

During the next seven minutes, according to testimony that later came out in court, he heaved the cinderblock through a truck window — injuring a female passenger — ransacked a nearby AM/PM market and hurled a beer bottle at an onlooker. When he started throwing rocks at cars, two Marines tried to subdue him. To fend them off, White grabbed a push broom from the back of a nearby maintenance truck and hit one of the men on the leg, causing the broom’s head to break off.

Witnesses reported hearing White yelling, repeatedly, “In the name of Jesus Christ” and “Help me.” They described his behavior as “bizarre” and “crazy.” Police dispatchers alerted officers to an assault with a deadly weapon — the cinderblock — but also warned that this was a potential 5150 call, the code for someone who’s mentally ill and poses a danger to himself or others.

When police arrived, White was standing on a sidewalk and hitting a parked van with the jagged end of the broom handle. Five officers surrounded him — four with guns drawn, one with a police dog — yelling at him to drop the stick. He didn’t. Less than a minute later, at 1:30 p.m., White lay dying on a patch of dirt from a gunshot wound to the chest. He was pronounced dead at the scene. 


The scene where Elwood White was shot to death by police, Oceanside, California, May 20, 2012.

Photo: Kelly Davis

Michael Astorga, the San Diego County sheriff’s deputy who shot White, told investigators that he was holding the stick “like a spear” and had lunged at another officer. But no witnesses, including the four other officers, corroborated this account fully. Neither did the forensic evidence. This past June, during proceedings in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit filed by White’s parents, a county medical examiner testified that the bullet’s path — through White’s right forearm and into his chest — showed he was gripping the stick like a baseball bat when he was shot, holding it close to his torso, the thumb of his right hand facing up and turned inward. The four other officers said they saw White step forward, but the stick remained vertical.

There were no attempts to use less-lethal force. The police dog wasn’t released because, his handler testified, he didn’t want the dog to get hurt — even though the dog had been trained to disarm suspects. The dog’s handler called out “less lethal” and “we need a beanbag” to Astorga, who had a beanbag rifle in the trunk of his car, but Astorga didn’t retrieve it. Astorga testified that he’d at first drawn his Taser, but decided against using it because it was too windy. The National Weather Service, though, showed the wind that day blowing at just 4 mph, according to evidence presented at trial.

Jamon Hicks, an attorney for the Whites, argued that the officers’ actions went against recommended protocol for dealing with someone in crisis. “What’s the rush? Back up. Use your resources,” Hicks said. “I don’t care if you say ‘Drop the stick’ 100 times — you save that man’s life. There were other options that they had, but they didn’t even try.”

Hicks and co-counsel Carl Douglas never argued that White didn’t pose a threat to public safety. The question was whether, at the moment Astorga fired his gun, White posed such a threat that deadly force was the only option. To prevail in the case, the defense had to convince the jury to ignore the forensic evidence, ignore the witness testimony and believe Astorga’s version of events. “I just think fear permeated the courtroom and the jury box,” Hicks told this reporter recently. During closing arguments, a county attorney hoisted the stick in his right hand, held it above his shoulder — as one would hold a spear — and stepped toward jurors with a loud, aggressive stomp.

On June 22 the jury — all white except for one Latina woman — deliberated for an hour before finding the shooting justified.

OVER THE PAST YEAR, news reports of police shootings have highlighted the fact that we simply don’t know how many people are killed each year by law enforcement — or why. How many are armed? With what? How many are black? Hispanic? How many are mentally ill? How many are, like Elwood White, black and seemingly mentally ill?


“There is no good data on the use of lethal force, period, much less the use of lethal force where mental illness is a factor, even much less the same involving mental illness and racial or ethnic groups,” said Doris Fuller, chief of research and public affairs for the Treatment Advocacy Center, which released a 2013 report urging better data collection on mentally ill people killed by law enforcement.

California is close to requiring such data collection. A proposed bill authored by State Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez requires all law enforcement agencies to report any shooting or use of force in which a civilian or police officer is injured or killed. The reports must include not only basic demographic information — gender, race, age — and what type of weapons were involved but also whether there were any perceived “behavior or mental disorders.” The bill requires the state Department of Justice to compile this information into an annual report. “We wanted to get a really clear picture of what was happening in the community with police officers and use of force,” said Francisco Estrada, Rodriguez’s spokesperson, “and what we can do to minimize the use of force on citizens and police officers.”

Another proposed bill aims to target racial profiling by collecting and analyzing data on the race and ethnicity of anyone even stopped by police. “People of color are getting murdered across the nation, and local data as well as anecdotal information suggests that the impact on African-Americans is disproportionate,” the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, told The Intercept. “At this point, we need to have data that explains why a person is stopped in the first place and what justification police officers have to use force on an individual.” Having such data, Weber said, “will give us the ability to move the discussion from anecdotes, rhetoric and accusation to a more rational and factual dialogue about appropriate law enforcement tactics and strategies.”

In the absence of official tallies, earlier this year the Washington Post began tracking police shootings in the U.S., using media reports and other public records, to compile an online database. As of Aug. 23, according to the Post’s count, law enforcement had killed 626 people. While the majority were armed with deadly weapons — guns or knives — of those killed blacks and Hispanics were two-and-a-half times more likely to be unarmed than whites. (The Post’s reporting team categorized as “unarmed” a black man holding a broom handle because, they wrote, it’s “an object unlikely to inflict serious injury.”)

Roughly a quarter of the deaths the Post has tracked involved someone who, according to police or family members, was mentally ill. Here, again, unarmed blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented: Black mentally ill decedents were 11 times more likely to be unarmed than whites. Hispanic mentally ill decedents were five times more likely to be unarmed than whites.

While the analysis is far from scientific, “it raises an interesting question,” said Phillip Goff, president for the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, “namely, the threshold at which black versus white mentally ill people become ‘life-threatening.’”

In the absence of good data, we’re left with what research tells us about policing and race and policing and mental illness. Experts say no research exists that examines the overlay of race and mental illness in confrontations with law enforcement.

Research shows that the less experience an officer has in dealing with someone who’s mentally ill, the more likely the officer is to view that person as a threat. Training in this area tends to be minimal, with most officers getting no more than eight hours of academy training, according to a recent survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum. At Elwood White’s wrongful death trial, Astorga testified that his training was limited to eight hours. The sheriff’s deputy whom White purportedly lunged at, who had his gun drawn but didn’t shoot, had participated in 24 hours of voluntary post-academy training in handling psychiatric emergencies. That officer said in a deposition that though he was pressing the trigger of his gun, he had “no intention” of shooting White.

In the same way experts believe that “black crime implicit bias” has led to a disproportionate number of black people being killed by police, so too might that bias lead some people to view certain groups as more dangerous, said Lorie Fridell, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, who’s considered a top expert on the subject. “This can occur even in those individuals who reject stereotypes and prejudice.”


Elwood (bottom left) with his father, Tim (top middle); his mother, Darleen (top, second from right); and his siblings.

Photo: Courtesy of the White family
This means that a 22-year-old black male who’s throwing rocks at cars, ransacking a minimart and wielding a broken broom handle will likely be perceived as more dangerous than a 45-year-old white woman engaging in the same behavior, said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former police officer who studies law enforcement training and tactics, “not because of conscious racism, but because of the implicit biases that shape [police] perceptions of that call or that encounter. At an unconscious level, that officer’s brain may be telling his mind, Its unusual for a 45-year-old white woman to be engaging in this behavior, so unusual that this is probably a symptom of mental illness. At the same time, the officer’s brain may be telling his mind, at an unconscious level, This seems like violent crime that young black adults have committed in the past that I, as an officer, am familiar with, so its probably that.”

The biggest factor in an officer’s decision to use force is the amount of resistance coming from a suspect, Stoughton said, and confusion could be interpreted as resistance. “Confrontational tactics, such as boxing a suspect in or making direct eye contact, can actually get officers into a lot of trouble when dealing with a person in crisis, as opposed to a criminal suspect,” he said.

ELWOOD WHITE WAS a long way from home when he died. He lived with his parents in Newhall, a small town just north of Los Angeles. On May 19, he’d taken a bus to Oceanside, 120 miles away in San Diego County, to spend the week with a longtime friend while his parents attended his sister’s college graduation in Texas. The friend told police investigators that as soon as he picked up White at the bus station, he could tell something wasn’t right.

The next afternoon, at the friend’s aunt’s house, White ran outside, started filling his pockets with rocks and began walking in circles and talking to himself. When the friend went to check on White, White punched him and took off running down the street, yelling, “It wasn’t me! Help me! Help me.” The intersection where White ended up is about a mile from the aunt’s house.

White’s parents still don’t know what was wrong with their son, but they believe he experienced some sort of psychotic break. He’d never been formally diagnosed with a mental illness, but just weeks before his death, he’d told his dad, Tim, that he was hearing voices. “My husband told Elwood that whenever he heard the voices, to just come and be with him,” his mom, Darleen, said.

White’s parents reject any suggestion that their son intentionally went on a rampage. He’d never been in trouble before; he’d never shown any violent tendencies. At the time of his death, he was a hospice worker, a Golden Gloves boxer who’d started a youth boxing program and a member of 818 Session, an underground “krumping” (street dance) group in North Hollywood. He was from a large, close family. (His dad and uncle, Lonnie White, were USC football stars.) The third of seven kids, White was the only one who hadn’t gone to college, a fact the defense zeroed in on during the trial. Darleen said her son planned to start community college in the fall of 2012.

White’s parents were so troubled by what police say their son did that they asked the coroner if he could examine White’s brain for any sign of what might have triggered his behavior. (This autopsy showed no signs of brain trauma or abnormality, although it would not necessarily reveal other forms of mental illness.)

The Whites don’t plan to appeal the jury verdict. But at least the trial helped them better understand what happened that day, Darleen said. “We finally have the answers we were seeking,” she wrote on a Facebook page set up in her son’s memory.

“Police testimony, in my opinion, proved that the situation was not handled properly,” she told The Intercept. “My son should still be alive.”

Photo: Elwood and his sister Taahirah in 2011.

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