Shortly after Chelsea Manning posted what appeared to be two suicidal tweets on May 27, police broke into her home with their weapons drawn as if conducting a raid, in what is known as a “wellness” or “welfare check” on a person experiencing a mental health crisis. Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst turned whistleblower and U.S. Senate candidate, was not at home, but video obtained by The Intercept shows officers pointing their guns as they searched her empty apartment.
The footage, captured by a security camera, shows an officer with the Montgomery County Police Department in Bethesda, Maryland, knocking on Manning’s door. When no one responds, the officer pops the lock, and three officers enter the home with their guns drawn, while a fourth points a Taser. The Intercept is publishing this video with Manning’s permission.
“This is what a police state looks like,” Manning said. “Guns drawn during a ‘wellness’ check.”
Welfare checks like this, usually prompted by calls placed to 911 by concerned friends or family, too often end with police harming — or even killing — the person they were dispatched to check on.
Manning was out of the country at the time of the incident, said Janus Cassandra, a close friend who was on the phone with her that night. “If Chelsea had been home when these cops arrived with guns drawn, she would be dead.”
Reached for comment, Montgomery County Police Captain Paul Starks at first questioned the authenticity of the footage. “Could someone send you a video that is inaccurate?” he asked, before changing course to, “How do you know nobody was home?”
Starks ultimately admitted that police conducted the check at Manning’s home after receiving calls from “concerned parties” who had seen her tweets. He said officers looked up her address and used a master key to get into the building, and that when they realized she wasn’t there they tried to locate her by using her phone. Starks did not reply to follow-up questions about how they attempted to track her phone.
“They responded to the address to check her welfare,” Starks said. “Once inside the residence they realized that the residence did not match the photo that was posted on Twitter. … We tried to determine where she may be by attempting to use her phone but the phone was powered off and they weren’t able to leave a message.”
Starks said that the decision to draw weapons “depends on the officer” who “makes the decision based on circumstances that are affecting that officer in that specific situation.” He added that the department has a dedicated crisis intervention unit, and that all officers in the department receive 40 hours of training in “dealing with people who may be having emotional episodes or issues,” but he failed to indicate whether the department sets guidelines on how to conduct welfare checks.
“They don’t know what kind of circumstances they are entering when they enter a home,” Starks said, increasingly flustered. “The fact that a weapon is drawn doesn’t mean that they are going to shoot it.”
“Do you know what was going on in that apartment that night? No. Not until you open the door and go in… We respond to hundreds of thousands of calls each year. Many of them are not what is phoned in.”
The problem, mental health experts say, is that police should not be the ones to check on suicidal people in the first place. In 2017, mental illness played a role in a quarter of 987 police killings, according to a tally by the Washington Post. People of color experiencing mental health crises are particularly at risk.
In 2018 alone, police have shot and killed at least 64 people who were suicidal or had other mental health issues, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “This January, Alejandro Valdez was suicidal and threatening to kill himself. The police shot and killed him,” Susan Mizner, the group’s disability counsel, wrote in a recent post. “In February, Orbel Nazarians was suicidal and threatening himself with a knife. The police shot and killed him. In March, Jihad Merrick was suicidal and pointing a gun at his head. The police shot and killed him. In April, Benjamin Evans was making suicidal comments. Police shot and killed him.”
“There is absolutely no excuse for sending armed police to the home of someone who is having a suicidal episode,” said Cassandra. “As we’ve seen countless times, cops know that no matter what happens, they will be shielded from any accountability whatsoever.”
“It’s not necessary for police to be the first responders when somebody calls 911 and says they’re suicidal,” said Carl Takei, a senior ACLU attorney focusing on policing, in an interview. “In the same way that if I were to call 911 and say I’m having a heart attack, I would expect a medical response. As a society, we should expect a mental health response when somebody calls 911 and says they are suicidal, rather than dispatching somebody who is armed with a pistol and most of whose training is directed at enforcing criminal law and how to use force with people whom they suspect are breaking the law.”
When police do become the first responders in mental health crises, Takei added, the ways in which they handle them vary greatly between departments.
“Some have specially trained crisis intervention teams that are dispatched when there’s a call involving a mental health crisis; some departments provide some level of crisis intervention training to all officers; some departments provide no training at all,” said Takei. “And, of course, if a department provides no training or very little training on how to deal with situations involving a person in a mental health crisis, the officers are going to default to the training they received, which is very much based on a command-and-control culture.”
Manning was accused of sending hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, exposing, among other things, evidence of numerous civilian deaths in Afghanistan and abuse by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, as well as information about Guantánamo Bay detainees.
In 2013, she was convicted of six counts of espionage by a military court, but acquitted of “aiding the enemy” — the equivalent of a treason charge in U.S. military court. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence before leaving office. Last week, a military court upheld her conviction, which she had appealed on First Amendment grounds.
In January, Manning announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Maryland.
Manning attempted suicide at least twice while in prison, where she had been repeatedly held in solitary confinement, including as punishment for one of those attempts. Last week, she alarmed her many supporters when she posted tweets suggesting suicidal intentions. In one, she posted a photo that appeared to show her standing on the ledge of a building, captioned with the words “im sorry.” Manning quickly deleted her tweets, but not before a number of people who had read them called police to check on her.
“Chelsea is still struggling to recover from the years of torture and mistreatment that she endured in prison, even as she continues to use her position to fight for what she believes in,” said Cassandra, her friend.
“I hope people can understand that she needs space to heal,” she added.
James Drylie, a former police officer who teaches criminal justice at Kean University in New Jersey and wrote a book on the so-called suicide by cop phenomenon, told The Intercept that while a lot of variables determine how police execute a wellness check, what happened at Manning’s home is not uncommon.
“They have to make sure there is no threat,” he added. “What you want to try to see is, what prompted them to think that this person may have been a threat to the officers?”
Drylie, who as an officer had a rifle pointed at him as he conducted a check on an individual reported to be suicidal, conceded that an aggressive police intervention would often only escalate a difficult situation — “Those situations always turn out to be very, very bad,” he said. But Drylie believes that police need to be there when a suicidal person is posing a threat to others, whether family or mental health professionals, and argued for better training, rather than removing police from wellness checks altogether.
“Really, one of the best ways to be prepared for all that is through training,” he said, citing costs as a reason why so many departments aren’t better equipped to handle mental health crises. “I don’t think we do a good enough job.”
There is no question that police too often resort to violence in situations that call for de-escalation, but the state of mental health services across the country is equally to blame, experts argue.
“There are two simultaneous national crises — one of police violence and the other of inadequate mental health treatment — and we are making a mistake if we focus blame only on the police,” wrote Matthew Epperson, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, in an op-ed following the police killing of Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old man whose father had called 911 as he suffered a mental health episode. “They have become, by default, the way in which our society chooses to deal with people with mental illness in crisis, particularly in poor and minority communities.”
“Training alone will not solve the problem of police violence against people with mental illnesses,” Epperson added. “If we are to prevent future tragedies, then we should be ready to invest in a more responsive mental health system and relieve the police of the burden of being the primary, and often sole, responders.”
“The moral of this story is don’t call the cops,” Cassandra said. “If you know someone who is having a mental health crisis, call a friend, a trusted neighbor, or someone close by who can safely intervene. Keep the number to a volunteer emergency medical service in your city or neighborhood that can be called directly without a police response. Mental health emergencies require friends and first responders, not gun-toting cops.”
Last week, a friend posting from Manning’s account said that she was “safe.” “She is on the phone with friends,” the friend added. “Thanks everyone for your concern and please give her some space.”
** chelsea is recovering and in the company of friends. we thank everyone for their well-wishes and support.
if you or someone you know is in crisis, these orgs can help:
USA: (877) 565-8860
Canada: (877) 330-6366
The Trevor Project (LGBTQ*)
USA: (866) 488-7386
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) May 30, 2018