Michelle Cusseaux. Hers is a name that we have not heard much, but it is yet another name on the growing list of victims of Blue on Black crime. On Thursday, August 14, Michelle Cusseaux was shot and killed by Sergeant Percy Dupra, a 19-year veteran of the Phoenix, Arizona Police Department.
Ms. Cusseaux was black. Sergeant Dupra is white. I promise you that racial distinctions are not always my first thought when I hear of tragedy, but sometimes they are. Too often I hear a headline that sounds like some real janky mess or some petty crime that I just don’t want our people associated with and I’ll trepidatiously click the link or tune in to the news chanting under my breath “Please don’t be black please don’t be black please don’t be black…”
And sometimes it’s a serious allegation that we see too often, perhaps involving a male athlete and sexual assault, for example, and the same chant takes on a deeper meaning.
These days, the chant is more of a cry, an unspoken sob as my heart struggles to grasp just how useless our lives must seem to so many members of law enforcement. I live with depression and anxiety and I grew up with a mother who is largely debilitated by mental illness that went untreated and misdiagnosed. Because I speak publicly about these issues, and advocate for mental health treatment and diagnosis with no shame and no stigma, people often engage me online about topics in this realm.
Someone sent me this story and when I saw the headline “Community Protests After Mentally Ill Woman is Shot and Killed” I couldn’t even summon up the chant. Before I clicked on the story I knew in my gut that the victim was black. I simultaneously knew it and could not believe it had happened again.
Michelle Cusseaux was 50 years old. Her mother, Frances Garrett, says that her daughter suffered from depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Ms. Garrett sought that day to have her daughter hospitalized during what has been reported as an extreme manic or dissociative episode. The mental health facility that they contacted reported a threat, which necessitated police presence. At the scene, Ms. Cusseaux was allegedly swinging a hammer above her head, which was read by Sergeant Dupra as an imminent mortal threat, causing him to fire the fatal shot.
I wasn’t there the day that Michelle Cusseaux lost her life. I can respond to what has been reported, but ultimately I wasn’t there. I was there, however, when my mother was in very similar situations with the police. Growing up as the older child in her single parent house, I was my mother’s primary caregiver until I left for college. Many late nights I was the one calling 911 because my mother had become violent in the throes of a manic episode. She had the same diagnoses as Michelle Cusseaux and at times she broke things, she threw things, she swung things above her head. But with family members present and awareness of her condition, the 911 calls never escalated to gunfire. I can’t even imagine they would have. I’ve seen my mother put in a straitjacket and forcefully subdued with injected tranquilizers, but guns drawn? No.
That Michelle Cusseaux could not have been subdued with less lethal force is an absolute travesty. Again, I wasn’t there. But people who were said that her condition was known throughout her condominium complex. Of course it would be; all of our neighbors knew about my mom as well. And let’s not forget the reason the police were at Ms. Cusseaux’s home in the first place: to aid in facilitating getting her to an inpatient hospital for treatment. This was not a random traffic stop or a robbery or a crime in progress where the police took necessary legal action to prevent loss of life only to find out after the fact that the perpetrator had been mentally ill. The police were there to get her to a hospital for treatment, and instead they killed her.
Sergeant Dupra is on paid administrative leave, which is standard operating procedure. Ms. Cusseaux’s family and supporters have been protesting and even marched to city hall with her body in its coffin to demand an external investigation. It’s horrifying to think we’re dealing with this with such frequency. Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia issued an apology to the family, and he has stated that he would like more mental health training for the department. Perhaps that will come to pass. Perhaps Recognizing Black People as Humans and Not Just Targets or Lethal Threats will be a component of that increased training.
Michelle’s mother has said “I did not ask for Michelle to become another statistic here, another homicide. I did not call [the police] for that reason.” I don’t know what Michelle’s condition was that day. I wasn’t there. But I know she was alive and could have gotten treatment. Since her life was cut short, that is no longer an option.