On a balmy day in February, Jedidiah Brown drove onto a busy expressway in the heart of Chicago, firearm in tow, with the intention of killing himself. The South Side activist, now 30 years old, sat in his parked car holding the gun to his head while he broadcast over Facebook Live. He cited the death of a family member and living in a city rocked by police violence and political corruption as reasons for the episode.
While Brown sat weeping, a team from the Chicago Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics division was deployed to the scene. The SWAT team rammed Brown’s car from the front and back with two large armored vehicles, which he says looked like “tanks.” Video footage of the incident, which Brown captured on Facebook Live, shows him growing increasingly agitated and pleading with the police. “Fucking stop it,” he said at one point, to the sound of more crashing.
“It made everything race, made everything chaotic,” Brown said of the SWAT team, comprised of several heavily armed officers. “I went from having the desire to commit suicide to thinking, ‘Now I’m going to be killed by the police.’”
Brown’s friend Alicia Spikes, who says she witnessed the incident, was troubled by the SWAT team’s actions. “I believe,” she said, “they escalated the situation more than it had to be.”
Since 2013, Chicago police have deployed SWAT teams at least 38 times to respond to mental health incidents and suicide attempts, according to deployment logs obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Such deployments are picking up pace. In the four months after Donald Trump won the election last November, SWAT teams were deployed at least 10 times in response to suicide threats or attempts. As of this spring, 2017 is on track to see more than twice as many mental health-related SWAT raids as the annual average over the past four years. The figures in the documents likely undercount the number of SWAT deployments in response to mental health crises, because not all cases are logged as such in police records.
SWAT deployments to mental health crises are usually logged as “hostage, barricaded subject or terrorist” incidents. Though not a single raid since 2013 has been recorded specifically as a “terrorist” event, the logic of a “counterterror” approach to policing drives militarized responses to mental health crises. And local law enforcement agencies receive federal government counterterror funding to bankroll training and equipment for SWAT teams. All this comes amid austerity and privatization that has diminished public mental health services — Chicago, for instance, has closed half of its public mental health clinics since 2012. Armored teams of cops have become expensive hammers in search of nails. In Chicago, they have found some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, disproportionately targeting African-American, Latino, and poor people.
“Given both historical and continuous trauma inflicted by various state actors upon communities of color, and particularly upon black and indigenous people, the person in crisis could fear that the heavily armed SWAT team is there to harm them, which could further escalate the crisis,” said Dr. Daniela Kantorová, a clinical psychologist at the Wright Institute. “There are multiple studies showing that black people are at greater risk of being killed by the police, and this risk must be factored in.”
“I think the way the CPD handled me, I don’t think that would be a typical encounter in that situation,” Jedidiah Brown said. “I feel they treated me with a little more consideration than they might someone else.” Brown says his life was not ruined by the incident. Instead, he was handcuffed at the scene, taken to the University of Chicago hospital, and later released. He attributes his relatively gentle treatment to his prominent profile as an activist; Brown rose to national visibility when he stormed the stage of an eventually cancelled March 2016 rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Militarized reactions to mental health emergencies can often exacerbate the very crises police have been called to help resolve. “If a person is suicidal, they need help, obviously, but they might not be easily open at that point,” said Kantorová. “If police and a SWAT team show up, that person could become more agitated or start acting in a way that could be more erratic, they could act in a way that could appear aggressive to the cops. Then that can also increase the danger of them getting killed.”
“Lethal outcomes are more likely,” Kantorová explained, “when first responders are heavily armed.”
The tragic potential of police escalations is not lost on those at the receiving end of SWAT raids. “The moment that the SWAT team car came, everything I felt intensified,” Brown recalled. “I’m just ready to give up, ready to die. I feel like I am in a war at that moment.”
Brown, and others like him who have faced SWAT teams amid mental health episodes, have every reason to believe their lives are at risk. Unlike Brown, many do not survive. The Guardian determined that in 2016, at least 20 percent of the 1,091 people who, according to records, were killed by police officers either had a mental health condition or were in the midst of a major episode before they died. In at least 80 of these killings, the police arrived on the scene because of a call about self-harming behaviors.
SWAT raids are being unleashed on a city still reeling from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 decision to shutter half of its 12 mental health clinics, and privatize the remaining six. In April 2012, patients and activists staged an occupation of the Woodlawn Mental Health Center in the South Side. They constructed makeshift barricades with trash cans and quick-dry cement. Protesters dropped banners from the facility. “Stop Stealing Our Health: Save Our Clinics,” read one banner. The activists demanded negotiations with the mayor.
Instead, the city sent in police — including a SWAT team — and launched a violent crackdown on the civil disobedience action. “One of the clinic consumers was sitting there in a wheelchair,” recalls Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, co-founder of the community organization Southside Together Organizing for Power. “They” — the SWAT team — “took a chainsaw to barricades with him standing inches away. Two of the other people, including Helen, who later died, were so upset and shaking uncontrollably because of the whole thing.”
Ginsberg-Jaeckle was referring to Helen Morley, who had long-term mental health issues and organized for access to health care. Morley regularly used the facilities at the city’s mental health clinic in Beverly/Morgan Park. Many of her loved ones say the clinic’s closure played a role in her fatal heart attack in June 2012 at age 56, by cutting off a vital support network and destabilizing her life. Three months before she died, Morley confronted Emanuel at an anniversary celebration for the Chicago History Museum, telling him over and over, “You’re killing us.”
The Emanuel administration has not provided a systematic review of the full human impact of shuttering these public clinics en masse, although it did hold open hearings in the summer of 2014 that were ostensibly aimed at evaluating the impact of his health care policies. Residents and mental health providers, however, have been tracking the toll. District Council 31 of the union AFSCME, which represents clinic workers, concluded in a 2012 review that the closures “left many communities without reasonable access to services despite the growing need for services.” The clinics mostly served people of color; 61 percent of patients were black residents, followed by Latinos, many of them medically indigent, the study found.
Years later, those Chicago residents are left to deal with the impact of the closures. “In 2011, we had told the mayor that if you close these centers, you are going to have a lot of people lost in the system, people not getting their shots,” said Diane Adams, a board member of STOP who took part in the Woodlawn occupation. “You’re going to have people with mental illness out there, a lot of people who are suicidal. Everything that is happening in Chicago right now, we told the mayor it was going to happen once you close the clinics,” said Adams, who told The Intercept she has chronic depression and survived suicide attempts. “Cook County Jail is the biggest psych ward there is.”
“Cook County Jail is the biggest psych ward there is.”
Some survive mental health crises and decimated public services only to find themselves ensnared in the prison system. In September 2016, a man, who, according to his daughter, has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, experienced a breakdown and went to a 7-Eleven. Though unarmed, he barricaded himself with two store employees for nearly four hours. “He was in the 7-Eleven and called saying he needed his medication,” said the man’s daughter, who requested anonymity for fear that public exposure would adversely affect her father’s mental health. “He has Medicaid and needs his medicine.”
Police called in a SWAT team, and a standoff ensued. “They just kept telling him that he was in trouble,” said the man’s daughter.
The standoff ended when the SWAT team detonated an explosive device to gain entry and take the man into custody. The man harmed no one and yet, unlike Brown, he did not get to walk away from the incident. Instead, the city threw the book at him: In September 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for committing robbery without a firearm; he is currently serving time in Dixon Correctional Center.
“My father has reached out for help so much,” said the daughter. “There is no help at all in Chicago.”
Chicago officials make no secret of their punitive responses to public health crises. “My office’s conservative estimate is that one-third of the 10,000 inmates in custody suffer from serious mental illnesses,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart wrote in a 2014 op-ed. Despite this admission, such practices have not meaningfully changed under Dart’s watch, and the sheriff remains the custodian of people with mental illness who are locked in his jail.
In a 161-page investigation released in January, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice noted that Chicago police have a pattern of using “force against people in mental health crisis where force might have been avoided.” The probe outlines a litany of abuses, including one case where “officers used a Taser against an unarmed, naked, 65-year-old woman who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.” In another case, “Officers, who were responding to a call that a woman was ‘off meds’ and ‘not violent,’ Tasered an unarmed woman because she pulled away and ‘repeatedly moved [her] arm,’” the report states.
These patterns are well-known to local residents. In a 2014 report, the grassroots initiative We Charge Genocide documented that the Chicago police department’s “cruel and degrading treatment of Chicago’s youth of color” compounds cycles of trauma and serves to “control entire communities.”
Cook County is not alone in its punitive approach. The Department of Justice determined that, as of the middle of 2005, more than half of all people incarcerated in prisons and jails “had a mental health problem.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2 million people living with mental illness get locked up in U.S. jails every year.
The Chicago Police Department, however, is caught up in a federal push to militarize various cities’ police forces in the face of terrorist threats that never quite materialize in most places. While SWAT teams are by definition militarized, the expansion of their use was not inevitable.
Chicago ranks third among recipients of funding from the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a program overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. The initiative was established in 2003 with the stated purpose of bolstering local governments in “high-threat, high-density urban areas and to assist these areas in building and sustaining capabilities necessary to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from threats or acts of terrorism.” In practice, however, the program has helped escalate militarization of police departments across the country, facilitating the purchase of surveillance technology and military-grade weaponry — and funneling money into SWAT team trainings nationwide.
Chicago took in more than $69 million in Urban Areas Security Initiative funds in 2015 and $54 million in 2016. Between 2013 and 2015, Cook County spent at least $20 million from the program on trainings for police, SWAT teams, and other first responders, according to documents obtained through a FOIA request submitted by Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor of sociology who specializes in criminology and surveillance studies at the State University of New York at Cortland.
“Since the proclamation of the war on terror and the formation of Homeland Security, we’ve invested a trillion dollars into homeland security,” he told The Intercept. “The reality is that terrorism is an insignificant threat.”
The Chicago Police Department’s press office said by email that the DHS dollars were “used to fund equipment and training related to all terrorist type of activities by our SWAT members.” When asked for specifics, the department referred The Intercept to the department’s FOIA office. A spokesperson for the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told The Intercept that the agency is not immediately available for comment on how such funds are disbursed.
Despite the lack of transparency, the Urban Areas Security Initiative has caught the attention of social movements across the country. In a June 2016 letter signed by more than 30 groups, the War Resisters League wrote, “By requiring training supported by these federal funds to contain a ‘nexus to terrorism,’ UASI serves to fuel the dangerous culture of aggression so rampant in U.S. police departments.” (The authors of this post have both spent time organizing with the War Resisters League.) In Berkeley, communities recently mobilized against Urban Shield, an Urban Areas Security Initiative-tied SWAT team training and arms expo — before they were met with police beatings and arrests.
“American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs.”
Federal policies aren’t the only factor driving local law enforcement militarization. Last month, Chicago media reported that Emanuel’s office is moving to funnel $95 million into a new police and fire training center with a shooting range and “active scenario” exercises.
These increasingly militarized police forces disproportionately impact black, Latino, and poor communities. In Chicago, these communities are concentrated in the South and West Sides. These areas of the city saw 70 percent of the “hostage, barricaded subject or terrorist” deployments by SWAT teams, which include responses to mental health crises, between 2013 and 2016, according to department logs. Racial disparities are even more pronounced when it comes to SWAT raids to deliver search warrants, which represented 69 percent of all SWAT raids in Chicago from 2013 to 2016. During this time period, more than 90 percent of search warrant raids were conducted in the South and West Sides.
As suggested in a 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report, this difference could be attributed to the fact that people of color are dramatically more likely to be subject to raids involving drug investigations, due to the racist nature of the U.S. war on drugs. “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight,” the ACLU warned.
Jedidiah Brown still thinks about how his encounter with the SWAT team could have turned out much worse. “If I didn’t have the relative visibility I had, they may have been more aggressive toward me,” he said. “And if there weren’t so many people aware of who I was, I’m almost of the persuasion that, if I hadn’t committed suicide, I would have been killed.”
Brown says he has been dealing with complicated grief disorder and exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but is receiving counseling and no longer struggles with suicidal ideations. Since his ordeal, he has become passionate about addressing public health concerns surrounding mental health and suicide. One lesson was abundantly clear to him. “I do not advise such a militarized response,” Brown said. “When someone is in a state of thinking about taking their own life, any act of hostility or aggression will agitate that thought. Their presence did make it worse.”