Monday, March 16, 2015

Mental illness, Westlake police and the politics of bigotry!

     Recently, a severely mentally ill women, Tanisha Anderson, died in the midst of a crisis call with the Cleveland Police which has once again put a spotlight on police contacts with this misunderstood group. The coroner reported that Tanisha died of a heart condition, which is likely the result of her illness. There has been a rush to judgment on her death and some unfair scrutiny of the Cleveland police.
     For over a decade, I have been involved with Crisis Intervention Team training, which is a blueprint for de-escalating police encounters with the mentally ill. I have witnessed firsthand that the Cleveland police have been an ambitious participant in this program. However, this event opened up wounds from my past experiences with one local law enforcement agency, the Westlake Police, whose actions can best be labeled as emotional brutality.
    Bigotry is defined as “the possession or expression of intense, unreasonable prejudices, or opinions.” Individuals, such as myself who suffer the indignity of being diagnosed with mental illness often face a painful backlash when others either find evidence or witness the symptoms of our affliction. In the Westlake Police department, they have brazenly expressed a culture of ignorance towards those diagnosed with one of these conditions, which lit the fuse of unchecked discrimination.
     The storyline was that a former business associate of mine began a series of allegations against me, which were later proven to be fictitious. His weapon of choice was first and foremost my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. The Westlake police were more than pleased to assist him and began to call me routinely in for questioning. It was here that no matter how much I implored them to leave me alone, they continued their emotional assault. It is important to point out that despite their best efforts, they were never able to identify any nefarious activity which was the basis for the accusations.
     During these “interrogations” I attempted to file claims of possible criminal activity committed by the accuser. It was at this point in the timeline that the bigotry of the Westlake police came to light. On three different occasions, the police denied me the right to file a report. I felt like Jesus did when in biblical teachings, St Peter denied him on three different occasions. It bears mentioning that there are over three hundred million citizens in this country, and all are free to protect themselves by filing reports for help, except for those diagnosed as mentally ill in Westlake Ohio.
     In follow-up calls to the police, I was referred to as a “psycho” in much the same context as the “N” word would be used in a racist manner. A Captain Guy Turner seemed to find glee in mocking and demeaning my plight. He even ran interference for the then Chief of Police Richard Walling and would never allow me to speak with him. It became painfully evident that the police culture in this community was exposed as one of arrogance and stupidity.
     In an effort to find a different avenue for protection, I contacted the community leaders. It was with this cast of characters that the old saying that “A fish rots from the head first” was on full display. It was here that the root cause of their discriminatory practice going unchallenged was exposed, which is the city leadership’s inability to look past their own phony self-righteousness. 
     First on the list was Mayor Dennis Clough, who boasts a Harvard Education but did not even seem to understand that the word bigotry extends far beyond racial boundaries. He has made a career working in Government, and it has been alleged that he has used local public sector jobs as his family’s personal employment agency. My conversations with him were visceral at best, and he kept telling me I can write a letter, which he insisted were as good as a police report. He never once answered the question as to why I was prohibited from filing a complaint like the other 300 million plus citizens of this country.
      Next, I contacted the President of City Council Mike Killeen. He did nothing but become demeaning and claimed he is an expert on police work. When I attempted to explain that I was also elected to the city council, he would just rudely interrupt. This encounter with him reminded me of an old southern sheriff from the 1940’s speaking with a black family who came into the local police station to report a crime against them. The one that would ask the father, “boy, what is your problem?”
    Finally, I contacted then Councilwomen and current State Representative Nan Baker. She spent her time boorishly describing what a superhero she is and that there had ‘never’ been a problem with their department. Like the others, she became very demeaning and reminded me that the mentally ill can be dangerous. Out of all of them, she was without question, the most disgusting and kept claiming she was not bigoted. I kept waiting for her to defend her actions by insisting, “Some of my (her) best friends have a mental illness.”
     There is one common denominator, and that is, all refused to address the police refusing to allow me the right to protect myself. To all of them, I was viewed as some weak, crazy individual who did not deserve their efforts. It appears their real ambition in life is to live in a gated community as a means to avoid those not deemed part of their “moral universe”.
     In thenn attempted to contact then State Senator Bob Spada, who was known to be a strong advocate for those afflicted with mental illness. It is important to acknowledge that both he and his wife should be commended for the great deal of time and resources they have provided as advocates to eliminate the stigma of these conditions. However,  I was to soon discover that politics overrides the needs of those who suffer the indignity of being stigmatized by those he categorizes as favorable politicians.
     My reason for contacting the office of Senator Spada was not only for help, but to try and understand his supporting Nan Baker in her run for the Statehouse, when she has shown such disdain for those in need. Surprisingly, my calls were ignored, as I became invisible to him. I was disappointed to learn that in spite of his advocacy, he acted as if my illness made me unbefitting of his efforts.
     Undeterred, and ironically at a luncheon that was supporting a cause to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, I was able to confront Senator Spada. He responded by defending Nan Baker and informing me that there were “more important issues than bigotry.” His response left me both speechless and shocked. Even more bizarre was he then insisted that he and I have our picture taken together.
     After being a victim of both bigotry and emotional police brutality, this inspired my personal advocacy. I had decided that no one should be treated in such a manner as I was during those early dark days of recovery. Over the years since, I volunteered a great deal of time and effort in working with local police departments on the issues of their contacts with the mentally ill. I have likely been involved in the training of nearly 1,000 police officers throughout Northeastern Ohio and that work continues to this very day. I have developed mutual respect with countless police officers, but none from Westlake, which I classify as a “rogue” department.
     As time went by, I would attempt to discuss this issue with them, but to no avail. One Lieutenant whom I ounce spoke with said, “we were just talking about you the other day” then proceeded to laugh and hang up. What else would one expect from a police department who found it funny to use someone's pet for personal target practice, when they shot and killed a family dog.
     Recently, I decided it was time to discover if the culture of stupidity that permeated this department was still moving full speed ahead. First stop, the Mayor.
     Mayor Clough still did not grasp the notion that demeaning people because of illness was both improper and discriminatory. He once again refused to explain this departments denying me the right to ask them for protection. He continued to ask me why I didn’t call the police chief, and told him, that I could not get past Captain Turner, who, as I repeatedly told him, refused to put my call through. He went so far as to threaten that I could face criminal charges if I did, in fact, write a critical story about his police department. Perhaps he was asleep in his Harvard Civics class when they discussed the First Amendment right to freedom of speech..
     Calls to State Representative Nan Baker were expectedly ignored. She practices one of the cowardly forms of bigotry by turning her object of disdain invisible. In her defense, I am sure she was busy passing tax breaks in the statehouse to benefit her family business while continuously slashing the budget for suicide prevention programs.
     An email to Robert Spada, now President of the National Alliance on Mental illness of Ohio, NAMI, resulted in his developing a selective memory and he could not imagine that he spoke anything such as what he said to me. He also claimed that Mayor Clough and Representative Baker were quality individuals.
     To further examine the current zeitgeist of the Westlake Police, one needs only to read their annual report of their 2014 activity. This document was a masterpiece of political spin, and the author could have used their talents to elect the currently imprisoned O.J. Simpson as the next Pope. The highlight of this narration was spotlighting the efforts of Captain Guy Turner to eat his donuts at a local church. Rumor has it that his efforts have negatively impacted the stock price of Dunkin’ Donuts.
     The one positive to emerge from my recent inquiries was I did receive a call from the current police Chief Kevin Bielozer, who it must be conceded, was genuinely respectful. The only person on their police force or at City Hall who treated me in that manner. He informed me that the department now had 4 officers trained in CIT. However, they did not receive that training till 2013, a full decade after nearly every police department in Northeast Ohio embraced this program. In his defense, he did not become police chief until February of 2014. It is painfully evident that during my encounters, they had no one properly trained to understand that not everyone struggling with mental illness has villainous ambitions.
     What became of that former business associate whom Captain Turner and company held in high esteem? Besides being dragged into court over twenty times for non-payment of child support for his three kids, he had his Securities License suspended for five years by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for among numerous reasons, “Lack of Good business Repute.” However, he still occupies an office in Westlake and never faced the scrutiny of the local Police.
     Little doubt remains that the culture of arrogance that Westlake previously displayed has changed very little, and the police still exhibit a high level of reluctance to understand mental illness. Captain Turner, between rotating where he consumes his donuts, will likely continue to find brevity in degrading those not members of Westlake’s socioeconomic class.
     In conclusion, I have a message for Mayor Clough, Councilman Killeen, Captain Guy Turner and State Representative Nan Baker. The cross you burned in my yard may have only been metaphorical, but it still burns as a symbol of ignorance and exclusion. That is nothing for any of you, the police department or your community to hold up as a symbol of pride.      

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