Center for Disability Rights calls on Webster, NY Police Chief Pickering to retract statements promoting increased institutionalization of people with mental health disabilities

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Bruce Darling

Like everyone else in the greater Rochester community, people involved with the Center for Disability Rights were shocked by the Christmas Eve shooting in Webster.  Many of our members received their disabilities in acts of inexplicable violence.  We were also shocked that – even before an investigation had begun – Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering had made offensive and inaccurate statements suggesting that this tragedy was the result of public policies that allow people with mental health disabilities to live in the community.

It has been widely reported that Pickering said, “For the last 20 years we have been turning people loose and de-institutionalizing people, and I think we’ve swung too far.  I think there are still people that need to be in institutions that are a danger to themselves or others. And this is a classic example.”

Webster Police Chief Pickering’s statements are inaccurate and draw inappropriate connections between mental health disabilities and violence. Research shows that most people with significant mental health disabilities are not violent and most violent acts are not committed by this group. In fact, people with significant mental health disabilities are actually at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators. They are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

Webster Police Chief Pickering’s statements suggest that this specific incident was the result of deinstitutionalization or a failure of the mental health system to take action. Pickering said, ”we know that people are slipping through the cracks, not getting the help they need. And I suspect that this gentleman slipped through the cracks. Maybe he should have been under more intense supervision, maybe he should not have been in the public, maybe he should have been institutionalized, having his problems dealt with.”  There is no evidence that the tragedy could have been prevented through changes in mental hygiene laws.  Furthermore, committing such crimes is not evidence of a disability.  A person does not necessarily have a mental health disability – or any disability – simply because they do bad things.

In drawing these inappropriate connections, Webster Police Chief Pickering’s statements victimize people with mental health disabilities by reinforcing the stigma and discrimination they face. In talking about how “we have been turning people loose” when assisting people with mental health disabilities in returning to the community, Chief Pickering has dehumanized these people. His language is bigoted and offensive.

By making such statements, Webster Police Chief Pickering will discourage people from self-identifying as having a mental health disability or seeking treatment. It seems that Chief Pickering believes that increased mental health services are needed, but his statements undercut that goal.  People are already reluctant to self-identify as a person with a mental health disability because of the stigma that exists.  Under the specter of potentially losing their rights and freedom, people will be even more inclined to avoid seeking treatment – even if it were otherwise desired.

Webster Police Chief Pickering’s statements call for undermining the rights of Americans with mental health disabilities. Americans with disabilities are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as every other American.  The right to live in the community and receive services in the “most integrated setting” is the law of the land as affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States.  It is deeply disturbing to hear Webster Police Chief Pickering – who is responsible for upholding the law – suggest that such laws should be undermined or eliminated.

Even though some people with mental health disabilities may commit crimes – violent or otherwise – that doesn’t mean we should lock up large segments of that entire community.  As a public official, the Chief would never have suggested that it would be appropriate to lock up large numbers of African American men if the perpetrator was African American.  He would have immediately been criticized and held accountable for the bigotry in his statements, but he is permitted to make such statements about people with mental health disabilities because the stigma and bias against this group is so pervasive.  Webster Police Chief Pickering’s comments had no place in press briefings.

During the past few days, the Center for Disability Rights has been reaching out to Chief Pickering to urge him to proactively address our concerns with these statements.  Chief Pickering has refused.  Consequently, the Center for Disability Rights calls on Webster Police Chief Pickering to retract these statements, apologize to the disability community and work with us to educate the wider community about the truth of living with a psychiatric disability.

CDR joins the rest of the Rochester community in mourning the brave first responders who were victims of the shooting in Webster.  Our hearts are also with those who lost their homes to the fire.  We must all work together to eliminate the types of tragedies we have seen in Newtown and now Webster.  Solutions do not involve scape-goating entire populations of people with disabilities.