Death by police: We need to care more

I’m lounging on the couch, watching the Tigers, taping “The Good Wife” and wondering when we became so inured to people dying violently.

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In a casual conversation with a girlfriend, a woman who is like a big sister to me, she said she had just returned from Georgia, where she attended a memorial. It was for one of her daughter’s employees. Seems his girlfriend had called the police for help because the young man, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had struck her during an episode. She gave the officers his medicine and asked them to take him to the hospital. Instead, they took him to the county jail, where he was later found dead.

My girlfriend and I talked about a few more things and promised to get together soon. Then I went home and planted some flowers, took a hot bath and am now watching baseball – like nothing has happened, like someone didn’t tell me three hours ago that another kid had died in police custody.

Nine deputies were fired in the case we had talked about, the death of Mathew Ajibade, and charges may still be filed, according to NBC News, whose account of the young man’s encounter with police is heartbreaking.

As I mentioned, rather than take the young man to a hospital, the police took him to the Chatham County jail last January.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 9.57.45 PM“Mathew Ajibade was handcuffed to a restraint chair on New Year’s Day after he allegedly hit his girlfriend and broke a deputy’s nose while in the midst of a bipolar episode. His family alleges police used a Taser on Ajibade while he was restrained in the chair, and then left him there unattended.”

While searching for details of Mathew’s death, details I didn’t ask my friend about, I also found the story of a Texas teen, Kristiana Coignard, who walked into the lobby of an East Texas police station last month with a knife in her waistband and the Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 9.57.59 PMwords “I have a gun” written on her hand. After asking for help, she scuffled with police officers, who then shot her to death. The 17-year-old, the police contended, had no choice. They were vindicated. But she was mentally ill.

And I found a third case, an incident involving Keith Vidal, whose mother and stepfather called 911 last January when the 90-pound, 18-year-old schizophrenic was having an episode. Keith had stopped taking his medicine and was threatening his mother with a screwdriver. Three officers from three North Carolina agencies responded to the call. The first two officers tried to calm him down. They had tased him and had him on the ground. But then a third officer arrived. According to Keith’s stepfather, Mark Wilsey, that third officer said, “We don’t have time for this,” and shot Keith right there in front of his mother. That third officer, Bryon Vassey of the Southport Police Department, was on the scene for 70 seconds before a radio caught the shooting and a message saying it was in self-defense. He now faces charges.

Now, I am numb. Now I am paying attention. I am reeling from how many people have been killed in circumstances similar to these. It could be a delayed reaction to my just returning from Baltimore covering the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Six officers have been charged there.

What are we doing? What are we not doing? How are we not reacting to these situations like people are dying?
I’m not trying to instigate a debate about criminality or rogue cops. Each case is different. I just want us to care.

I just want to care. I want to hear that someone died and it not be so commonplace, so usual, that I can sit and watch a baseball game as if I didn’t know.

At some point, these deaths, all of them, must mean something to all of us. That is the only way they will stop.


ROCHELLE RILEY is a writer whose essays here are about her personal thoughts and adventures. No reprints without permission.
You can read her columns at and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

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