Earlier this month, officials in Denver decided to avoid further legal disputes with the family of Michael Marshall, an African American inmate who died at the hands of police officers attempting to quell him during a schizophrenic episode. The city settled with the Marshall family, paying them $4.6 million and promising to revise the city’s guidelines for handling inmates with mental illness.
The incident occurred almost exactly two years ago on November 11th, 2015. Shortly thereafter, Mayor Michael Hancock promised full transparency, but refused to release footage of the fatal event. Eventually, after the Colorado Independent filed a lawsuit against the city of Denver and after over 200 people (including the Marshall family) went on a hunger strike in protest against the Mayor’s refusal, Hancock was forced to release the tape.
As shown by the video, Mr. Marshall, who was likely without his medication, was sitting on a bench in a wing of the local downtown jail. After several officers approached him, Marshall attempted to pass the deputies before being whipped around several times by the officers, who shoved a spit hood in his mouth. A spit hood is a mesh mask utilized in the US and abroad. It has been described as “a cruel and dangerous form of restraint” by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
Marshall was left on the ground with this mask in his mouth for about eighteen minutes before his limp body was placed in a restraining chair. Several more minutes passed. Finally, an officer attempted to wake the man. Eventually, medics arrived, attempting to revive Marshall, who apparently had vomited while the mask was in place. Later, it was discovered that he had choked on his own vomit. Marshall then went into a coma. After finding out their loved on was in a hospital, the Marshall family had no choice but to pull the plug – that was on November 20th.
In reaching the settlement, the city was looking out for its financial interests: “After extensive evaluation of the facts and the possible outcomes of a costly trial, we made the difficult decision to propose a multifaceted settlement,” said Kristin Bronson, city attorney.
The Marshall family accepted the deal, but maintained that the treatment of their loved one was deeply wrong: ”If Michael could have been treated as a man in medical need, instead of like a criminal who was disobeying orders, he would still be alive today,” said Rodney Marshall, the victim’s brother.
The city will hire two mental health professionals to be on-site at the detention center where Marshall was kept. Additionally, deputies will be trained annually on how to deal with mentally ill inmates. Specifically, officers will be guided more thoroughly on when to use force. Additionally, the city threw out its policy of requiring families to post bail before seeing hospitalized inmates.
The changes come long after another similar incident involving a homeless preacher named Marvin Booker. Booker died after police officers used a taser, nunchucks and a sleeper hold, tactics that the court deemed “excessive.”
The city has promised to revise its rule book and change its procedures for dealing with mentally ill inmates, but one might argue that this solution fails to acknowledge a deeper issue, one glossed by Rodney Marshall. According to this point of view, Mr. Marshall should never have been arrested in the first place.
He clearly suffered from a poorly treated mental disorder that directly led to the “disturbance of the peace” charges at the root of his detention. By treating the symptom and not the cause, the city risks overshadowing the unsettling problem that Marshall was not given the care he deserved. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was thrown into a cell, a method proven to exacerbate mental health issues.
This is no small issue. Nearly 44 percent of jail inmates say they’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and up to 20 percent of inmates will require some form of psychiatric attention. Without funding for mental health facilities, more and more people will be swept into the prison system without the care they need.