Racializing Disability, Disabling Race: Policing Race and Mental Status

Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 15, p. 1, 2010

Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 11-03

65 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2011

See all articles by Camille A Nelson

Camille A Nelson

University of Hawaii at Manoa - William S. Richardson School of Law

Date Written: January 28, 2011


This article focuses on police practices in arresting and detaining criminal suspects who have mental illnesses. It identifies three modalities police may adopt when detaining a mentally ill suspect: medical modality (and its subset the family mode), the criminal modality, and the disciplinary modality. This article examines archetypal cases in which harsher treatment of a suspect may be meted out by the police against mentally ill persons of color.

To illustrate the different modalities, this article examines the case study of Donald Winters. Mr. Winters was a Caucasian male who was diagnosed with Delusional Disorder. He had threatened to kill the police officers when they attempted to apprehend him. Police understood they were dealing with a mentally ill suspect, and they restrained themselves from using violence in order to subdue him. In Coghlan v. Phillips, Mr. Coghlan, a white male known to have a criminal record and a history of mental illness, fired four to ten shots at police officers when they initially attempted to arrest him. The police officers did not return fire, but returned with a bullhorn and told Mr. Coghlan they wished to take him to a doctor. These cases are illustrative of the medical and criminal modalities and represent more appropriate police responses to mentally ill suspects. However, police seemingly demonstrate far less tolerance for suspects whose Suspect Identity Construction (“SIC”) is both a minority and mentally ill.

In Banks ex rel. Banks v. Modesto City Schools District, Rosie Banks was a thirteen year old, autistic, African American girl attending a junior high school. Rosie entered a new school and at first behaved in an aggressive manner. She was taken to the principal’s office where an officer confronted Rosie as she became more aggressive and pepper sprayed her in the face. In Reynolds v. City of Little Rock, John Willie Reeves, an African American man known by police to be mentally ill, was shot to death by several officers after waving a pocket knife. In Ali v. City of Louisville, Mr. Marlby was a homeless African American man who was known by several officers to be mentally ill. He was shot to death after an encounter with police. In each of these cases, police officers often chose the disciplinary modality, and often without prior utilization of a lesser modalities.

In these and other cases, the police do not utilize lesser modalities despite their knowledge that the suspect is mentally ill. This article explores the intersection of race and mental status as one that attracts heightened police scrutiny and which disparately leads to excessive use of force. It appears from the case law that the selection of the modality often depends on the racialization of the alleged offender.

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Camille A, Racializing Disability, Disabling Race: Policing Race and Mental Status (January 28, 2011). Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 15, p. 1, 2010, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 11-03, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1750285

Camille A Nelson (Contact Author)

University of Hawaii at Manoa - William S. Richardson School of Law ( email )

2515 Dole Street
Honolulu, HI 96822-2350
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.hawaii.edu/person/camille-a-nelson

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