Police Murders, Mental Health, and Protest: Report and Analysis from Newton, MA

by Comrade Connie

Michael Conlon, 28, was murdered by the Newton Police Department on Tuesday after the owner of Indulge! candy store, Linda Weller Gulman, called the police while he was having a mental health crisis. Conlon, who lived above and frequented the store, reportedly told Gulman he had not taken his medication and he wanted to show her something, revealing a knife. Despite local media and police describing the incident as “armed robbery,” the 911 call audio clearly demonstrates that Conlon was in a state of distress and pleading for help, saying he did not intend to scare Gulman and that he wouldn’t hurt her.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan acknowledged that Gulman had provided them with “a fair amount of information” and that a mental health clinician was requested by dispatchers. Yet, even with clear knowledge of Conlon’s mental health situation, Newton Police murdered him outside his own home just minutes after being called. Police reported attempting so-called “less lethal methods” to subdue Conlon before shooting him, but did not attempt to de-escalate or allow a mental health professional on the scene. Newton Police are also not equipped with body cameras, leaving them without evidence to support their claim that Conlon, who had fled to outside his own apartment and been shot with a taser and a “beanbag” round, posed a threat to four armed police officers.

Police and Mental Health

People in mental health crises are often the victims of police brutality throughout the so-called United States. At least 1 in 5 people killed by police have mental illnesses, and many neurodivergent or mentally ill people are abused and imprisoned by police and courts instead of receiving treatment. In one particularly horrific example last September, Salt Lake City Police shot an autistic 13 year old during a mental health episode. Nearer to Newton, 31 year old Terrence Coleman was murdered by Boston police in October 2016 during a mental health episode. The DA declined to charge the officers, who claimed he had a knife, but Coleman’s mother, who witnessed the incident, has consistently denied this. In both of these cases, the victim’s mothers had called 911 not for police, but for medical treatment and mental health support. But instead of medical professionals, police arrived and shot people in need of support, much like NPD’s murder of Conlon.

Cities give vast amounts of money to their police departments, and spend very little on mental health resources. In Newton, the Police budget of nearly $23 million dwarfs the Health and Human Services budget of $4.6 million, of which only a comparatively minuscule $262k goes to Mental Health. In Boston, the police budget is an enormous $414 million, most of which goes towards massive salaries and overtime pay (with the average BPD employee making over 6 figures). The city lacks even a mental health services line-item in it’s 2021 budget outside of its schools budget, even though it is the largest city in the region.

This pattern repeats in almost every city in the country: Police departments, despite the protests against them and the violence they inflict, demand and receive vast amounts of funding and resources, leaving other departments underfunded or not funded at all. And even with mental illness rates increasing across the country, most cities have tiny mental health budgets if they have them at all, leaving people who need support and treatment at the mercy of police. When the police don’t shoot them, mentally ill people are incarcerated instead of treated, with 2 million people with serious mental health conditions booked into jails each year, a number that does not account for the many more with less serious conditions.

2020 saw months of widespread protest and opposition to these policies, often with the specific demand of increased mental health funding, but cities across the country have refused to give even slightly less money to cops. After protests in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh refused to even consider cutting the police budget at all, proposing just $20 million be reallocated to mental health counselors working within the police force, a model that experts have said is indistinguishable from the current one. One notable exception to this pattern is an $8 million cut to the Minneapolis police, where an uprising saw a police precinct burned in May. While still a very small amount of the overall police budget, it is one of the very few concessions the state granted after the substantial mobilizations against police across the country.

Protest Leadership Defuses Community Militancy

A protest outside the Newton Police Department on Wednesday, led by local organization “Defund Newton PD”, a group founded in the wake of the George Floyd Uprisings. The crowd of 100 mostly local protesters from the wealthy, majority white suburb demanded the unnamed officers be indicted and convicted for the shooting. This demand has seen a distinct lack of recent or historical success, as police officers are almost never prosecuted or convicted for crimes they commit, even after decades of protests around this demand, and an uptick in these sort of protests since the 2014-15 Ferguson uprisings. The protest also drew a crowd of 30 pro-police counter-protesters defending the department that had murdered someone 24 hours prior, lobbing insults at teenage protesters from behind a police line.

Despite one organizer leading the crowd in singing “Which Side Are You On?” – a song written by and about armed miners defending themselves against police attempts to crush their union – the event’s leadership was dedicated to preventing any sort of action directed against police or counter-demonstrators. While tensions flared up sporadically throughout the protest, organizers, some attendees, and police collaborated (intentionally or not) to defuse any potential militancy or confrontational tactics from the crowd.

When some protesters attempted to eject an antagonistic counter-protester who had moved over to the Defund NPD side, other attendees stepped in to prevent any confrontation and allow the pro-police demonstrator to continue harassing people. Towards the end of the event, a counter-protester aggressively shoved a member of the crowd who had approached him as he stood outside the police line, police quickly moved in to protect the aggressor. When frustrated protesters moved in to try to support the person who was shoved, attempting to take the sign he was wielding at the victim, police threatened them with arrest. Another protester began chanting “don’t touch other people’s things” at those trying to take the aggressor’s sign. Tensions briefly subsided, but when they began to increase as protesters grew more confrontational towards the pro-police side, the organizers asked the crowd to disperse simultaneous to police reinforcing their lines with more bicycle officers, ending any potential for spontaneous militancy on the part of the attendees.

Defund Newton PD has not announced any plans for follow-up actions at this time. While District Attorney Ryan claims that “the investigation is ongoing,” history shows it is highly unlikely that Conlon’s murderers will be held accountable, particularly if those leading the calls for that accountability continue to use non-confrontational tactics in pushing for historically unsuccessful demands.

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