A few weeks ago, I watched a crisis unfold on Twitter.
A black woman posted what looked like a suicide note. Her followers scrambled to help her. One woman, also black, tweeted that anyone who knew her personally should call a suicide helpline.
Send help, the woman tweeted. But don’t call police.
That last bit stuck with me. As a psychiatry resident in Cambridge, I often staff a crisis line. I am help. And, if the crisis warrants it, I have to send the police. But I am also a black woman, and knowing that police interventions can be violent, and even deadly, I have to silence the screaming voice inside of me that says, “Don’t do it.”
I have to trust where trust is broken. I have to pray that a call to police will help, and not hurt. This is my “sunken place”: the paralyzing feeling of reluctantly participating in a system that terrorizes people like me.
Within the hospital’s walls, my relationship with local law enforcement is professional — officers accompany patients in police custody, or bring people to the emergency department for mental health evaluations. The officers are polite, but I am never truly at ease.
Because once I’m out of the hospital, I’m not a black doctor. I’m just black.
This is the same police force that didn’t see Henry Louis Gates, black Harvard professor. Outside the classroom, he was a black man trying to get in a house — his house. This is the same police force who tackled and punched a black Harvard University student who was walking around naked and unarmed, clearly distressed.
And it’s not just city police. When I was a student at Harvard College, someone called campus police to break up a game of dodgeball and capture the flag being played by black students, including me. And nearly every day for the past few weeks, news reports have detailed how people, mostly white, have called police to remove and constrain minorities from places they are deemed not to belong. A golf course. An Airbnb rental. A college tour. A dormitory at Yale University. A public park. Starbucks.
No, these calls didn’t lead to violence. But the pleas are real, as in this headline: Stop Calling the Police on Black People Just Because You’re Annoyed; You’re Gonna Get Someone Killed.
It’s a struggle for our humanity, one that black people always seem to lose. When I was leaving a black alumni event at the Harvard-Yale football game in New Haven a few years ago, a police officer pushed me.
“You can’t just shove me,” I said. “That’s assault.”
The officer said nothing. We both knew she could push me with impunity, and that’s exactly why she did it.
I’m afraid of the police. According to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, this is an entirely reasonable response, because of the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled.” And as a doctor specializing in psychiatry, I am more and more afraid for many of my patients — minorities living with mental illness — who may, at some point, be forced to interact with the police.
What if they try to get away? According to the Washington Post’s police shooting database, 85 of the 399 people (as I write this) killed by police since the start of 2018 have been black. Fifteen of them had a known mental health diagnosis. Blacks, in general, are overrepresented in police killings, based on population percentages. Mental health plays a role.
So it’s no wonder to me that during that Twitter crisis, a black woman trying to help was also trying to make sure police were not involved.
During my intern year, one of my black patients was a retired law enforcement officer. Like me, he worked in a profession with a history of betraying black people. I wondered how to make peace with the contradiction we embodied. I asked him how he was coping with the recent fatal police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, hoping he could offer me words of wisdom.
He just shook his head over and over again, acknowledging the devastation we both felt.