Renee Davis, a pregnant 23-year-old Native American mother of three, was shot and killed by police on Muckleshoot tribal land in Washington state Friday evening.
According to the Seattle Times, police arrived at Davis’s home for a “wellness check.” Davis suffered from depression, and her foster sister, Danielle Bargala, said a friend reportedly called police after Davis sent a text saying “she was in a bad way.”
King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Cindi West said that two deputies arrived at Davis’s home around 6:30 pm, at which point they knocked on the door with no response, the News Tribune reported. When the two officers entered Davis’s house, they allegedly found Davis armed and shot at her.
Each officer — one with eight years of policing experience and the other with three — have been placed on paid leave as an investigation into the encounter takes place, according to News Tribune. The names of the deputies involved have yet to be released.
But Davis’s story is an all-too-common example of encounters between law enforcement, those with mental illnesses, and indigenous people.
Police have become America’s first responders to mental health crises
“It’s really upsetting because it was a wellness check,” Bargala told the News Tribune. But Davis’s death is also a tragic reminder of the ways the criminal justice system has supplanted America’s mental health system.
While it’s unknown whether Davis was treated for depression, Vox’s German Lopez has previously noted that people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be shot by police. This is in large part because police have become America’s first responders to crises they typically aren’t trained to handle:
If people were getting comprehensive care and support, police most likely would not need to get involved in many of the circumstances that end up in horrible tragedies. But very often in the US, that’s not happening.
Mental health care is woefully underfunded in America, and the criminal justice system is often the only institution that can pick up the slack. A 2014 national survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center concluded, "Not only are the numbers of mentally ill in prisons and jails continuing to climb, the severity of inmates’ illnesses is on the rise as well." The survey found that the number of people with serious mental illness in prisons and jails outnumber those in state hospitals 10 to one.
Deescalation training by law enforcement is one way to prevent these unnecessarily fatal interventions. Another option would be to follow advocates’ calls for “a stronger public mental health system — one that prevents a mental illness from getting so bad that it requires a criminal justice intervention.” But resources need to be redirected to ensure mental health care is accessible to those who need it most.
Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial demographic
Police brutality has become a major component of America’s national conversation in large part due to the organizing efforts of activists in the movement for black lives.
Yet their goal isn’t just to stop police from killing black people. Putting an end to racially biased policing practices works to everyone’s benefit. Davis’s recent death is an example of why that is necessary.
A recent investigation by Stephanie Woodard for In These Times showed that Native Americans are more than three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Native Americans are also more likely than any other racial demographic to be killed by police with respect to their representation in the US general population.
Yet stories like Davis’s are rarely told. Woodard’s report showed that from May 2014 to October 2015, Rosebud Sioux member Paul Castaway was the only one of the 29 Native American police brutality victims who had been the subject of significant media coverage.
As Woodard wrote, the erasure of Native Americans from the national conversation on police brutality has to do with the fact that “racial issues in the United States tend to be framed as black and white, while other groups are ignored.”
The data on police violence in the US is damning. At least 2,195 people have been killed by police since Mike Brown was killed by former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson two years ago. And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.
But in order to stop police brutality, Americans have to be willing to see police violence isn’t as isolated as it seems, even if it impacts some communities of color more acutely than others.