Alex Nieto’s Shooting: Continual Misperceptions of Mental Health

I first met Alex Nieto at my friend’s college graduation party. He was polite and laidback, and he told me how he wanted to make a difference in youth’s lives, to move them away from a life of violence. A practicing Buddhist, he had aspirations to become a youth probation officer. The next time I heard anything about Alex was on the news. He had been killed by the SFPD because he was perceived as a threat. 

There is no denying it—his case is controversial. Alex Nieto was accused of “behaving erratically” before being shot. Multiple bullets were found in his body. Police claimed that Alex pointed a Taser at them, but Alex was approached while peacefully eating his lunch before heading off to work as a security guard.

Alex’s death is relevant not just to his life as an individual. His story is also relevant to a larger issue: how the media reports, responds to, and justifies a shooting like this. For example, some media outlets have described Alex is as “mentally ill” or “mentally unstable” to justify the fact that he was killed. There are various problematic assumptions within this claim.

[Image courtesy of artist Jesus Barralda of Dignidad Rebelde] 

First, the media is portraying mental illness as fundamentally wrong and uncommon. Though countless people in the United States experience mental health problems, those experiencing mental illness are often publicly labeled as crazy, unstable, or a danger to society. The belief that mental illness is within itself a threat leads to unnecessary violence, as news outlets point to mental illness (or to the mere possibility of mental illness) as a justification for shooting with the intent to kill.  

Clearly, a series of reforms are necessary. In the same way that physical illness is treated with regular preventative care (i.e. working to avoid a heart attack, rather than waiting until a heart attack occurs to address the problem), mental illness should be handled consistently and preemptively, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Furthermore, due to a lack of understanding surrounding the treatability and prevalence of mental health issues, as well as an absence of mental health services in general, police may be faced with a situation where they are not necessarily equipped to deal with people in crises, or with people who are “believed to have mental health problems.” Alex’s circumstances are not coincidental; the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association reported that between 1980 and 2008, at least half of all people shot and killed by law enforcement officials were perceived to have mental health issues.  

Second, Alex’s “mental health background” was used to justify the shooting, even though these facts were irrelevant to what actually occurred in the moment when Alex was killed. Media headlines unfairly profiled Alex as deserving of his fate by typecasting him as an “armed” or “mentally ill man” before the facts of his case were out. This description of Alex’s character is problematic in that it assumes that the culpability of the shooting is with the victim, and it also justifies the overuse of force. This is backward logic, where the story is starting with the result (Alex’s shooting) as justifiable truth, and is using the prior details of his life in order to fit the narrative.

As a society, we are very focused on the fact that someone deserves to die or be punished, especially when it relates to low-income individuals and people of color. Particularly in a country with mass incarceration, this “guilty until proven innocent” mentality damages countless lives. This belief has led to increased police presence in schools, academic suspensions for “willful defiance,” and a widening wealth and achievement gap. Instead, we should be looking for ways to help people stay healthy and safe.

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