Hold Your Breath
How John Berry and Others Could Have Survived
It was past two in the morning when the vintage buzzer to my apartment — the one connected by a single phone line from the top floor to the bottom — alarmed me awake. It has that sound of 1970’s television game shows. Very loud, and typically I’m jarred when it goes off as I’m writing at my desk. I was asleep, in a reverie, and I laid my head back down, until the buzzing became incessant. I got out of bed.
In a dreamy fog and erroneously paranoid, I picked up the phone receiver — the one that only goes to the front door of my building eight flights down — to hear a frantic woman seemingly panicked saying, “help me… please…” that filled me with dread in the core, and I was alone with that sense of dreamy surreality. So the faculty of reason was not with me just then.
I called 911. I suppose that instinctual dread superceded every impulse to put on clothes and investigate the situation, one hundred feet below. I wasn’t about to let a raving woman into the building by buzzing her in from my home, where I couldn’t see her and couldn’t know whether she was alone or accompanied by someone else. I suppose the more I woke up, the more I reasoned my choice to call 911. They dispatched a cruiser. Shortly after hanging up, I heard my neighbor below run out to the elevator to retrieve the confused woman, a friend of his.
In the morning I woke up and questioned whether or not that was a dream. I notified the building manager that morning and he said “you did the right thing.” That night, I received fair trade organic chocolate and a bottle of wine from my neighbor. I felt stupid for being rewarded. Because cops! What if she was on mushrooms or something perfectly innocent but alarming to police officers? Then I started paying attention to the news stories of police killings more closely.
I noticed that Michael Brown was reported to 911 by the convenient store he robbed $5 of merchandise from, just before he was killed by officer Darren Wilson last August (though it turned out the interaction was unrelated). One week later, Kajieme Powell, was also gunned down by St. Louis police, following two 911 calls, because he was acting erratically. John Crawford, shot to death in a Walmart for carrying the store’s unloaded retail bebe gun, killed by police. Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy, shot dead for holding a bebe gun.
None of the people shot dead were engaged by those who made the “emergency” call. I can only imagine the guilt the woman who called about Tamir Rice must feel. There have been hundreds of 911 calls leading to a person’s death in the U.S. since Ferguson. In fact, more than a thousand have died in police custody. We have become numb to it, and this is who we send out as first response.
The story that recently called out several issues in policing was that of John Berry. In this case, a man of 31 diagnosed with schizophrenia, off his medications and sleep deprived, refusing to exit his BMW parked outside his family home, hurting nobody but psychologically trapped inside his car, is turned over to the police by his own brother. Not exactly — the family is now suing the Lakeside Sheriff and Los Angeles County Police Department — because they called for mental health services but received deputies. It wasn’t a 911 call. It was directed to the police station.
John Berry had managed a pizzeria and lost his job, announcing the bad news on July 4th at the family home. He was upset and returned in worse condition two days later. His brother, Chris Berry, a federal police officer employed by a facility with psychiatric care — probably wary of local deputies and their lack of mental health training — called the station requesting a mental evaluation team. This request was ignored and a team of deputies arrived, fully armed, ready to arrest a man, using aggressive tactics.
It is not a secret that schizophrenics have paranoid fits and hallucinate the worst, most unimaginable things, and they experience it as if it were real. Empathy is useful here, for someone terrorized by their own mind. So how did the sheriff expect it to go with a team of cars and guns? It did not go well.
John Berry was killed under a thunderous rainfall of bullets at the hands of the skittish local law enforcement. This happened mostly because police offers failed to do their job, a job that isn’t for them, and in part because the community failed to handle the situation together.
In the case of the story I brought up initially, all I had to do to avoid calling 911 was answer back to the crazy woman on the phone. “Do you need help?” She would answer “yes,” and would explain the situation. But if police had got to her first, she might have been interrogated, maybe would have acted “erratically” and been shot to death. Who knows? What is certain is that I was a coward. Yet everyone said, “you did the right thing.” Baloney.
As a kid, growing up in Santa Barbara, not far from Lakewood, north of Los Angeles, visiting the streets of LA or the quaint main street of SB, I have no memory of a time when dirty people didn’t wander the streets shouting nonsensical verse. I just assumed that’s how it always was and would be. But then my parents and their friends all repeated this idea that Reagan let all the crazy people loose by shutting down mental health services in California, as Governor and then again as President. They say it like he rounded them up in buses, unloading them in urban centers.
The thing is that this is how people feel about it: there was a very sudden rise in public disorder and crime; there was legislation that paved the way for cuts in state and federal mental health care, and Reagan was always on the side of privatizing health services. That is what happened. Federal funds were slashed, and liberals failed to fight for state funding. Law enforcement, since the 1980’s, has become the first responder to mental health crises, exterminating them on the spot.
There simply was a time when 911 didn’t exist and people policed their own communities. In the 21st Century, people pay the price for community disengagement by allowing police to handle every bit of disorder, armed to the teeth, and we’re losing some of our own friends and neighbors because of it.